Abandoned properties pose problems for code enforcement, neighbors

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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Since Roy Carter passed away two years ago, his house, located in the Truman Neighborhood, has remained in his name and in a steady state of decay.

The weeds are overgrown, the windows boarded up, its walls singed from the fire that broke out there last month, and its grounds are littered with debris.

Some neighbors say the property is a “zombie house,” one of the abandoned houses with nebulous ownership scattered throughout the neighborhood and the county. They point to a broader problem of the few remedies to bring these houses back to the living.

“Basically, it’s in limbo,” said Barb Cabe, vice-chair of the Truman Neighborhood Association.

“The people who come out of it look like the walking dead,” said David Benedicktus, chair of the association, of the squatters who’ve occupied it.

Following the housing crisis of 2008, cities started seeing more zombie houses after people walked away from their mortgages. While there’s no universal definition, zombie houses are generally properties left neglected by their legal owners or interested financial institutions. Their ownership is often unclear, and residents and local governments complain that they become hazardous eyesores and magnets for unsavory activity.

While zombie houses have subsided as the housing market has improved, they’re still present, and state law poses barriers to dealing with them.

Kevin Pridemore, Clark County’s lead code coordinator, said that in 2010, about a quarter of all cases involved problems with foreclosed homes. Now, he said code enforcement has about 40 cases involving vacant or foreclosed houses.

“We’ve seen it happen with half-a-million dollar homes in affluent neighborhoods,” he said. “It just becomes the neighborhood eyesore before you can blink an eye.”

Pridemore said if an abandoned property has code violations, enforcement will make every effort to determine who owns the property. Sometimes, it’s a bank, he said. “Most of the time I get no response on those,” he said.

Pridemore said that if a bank owns a house, they may hire a company to maintain it and post a notice outside. If the property has a code violation, he said he will contact the management company to remedy it. If they don’t respond, he said he can assess penalties and even liens as high as $500 a day if they’re not addressed.

“What I find is they will deal with them when they feel like dealing with them,” said Pridemore. “It’s just a cost of doing business.”

In the meantime, Corrin Driscoll, who lives next door to the Carter house, said she’s been reluctant to leave her windows open at night after squatters occupied the property. She was left further rattled when a fire broke out last month at the property.

“The good news is, we can’t see over there,” she said of the overgrown bushes blocking her view of the property. “The bad news is, we can’t see over there.”

This old house

Cabe and Benedicktus said that one zombie house in their neighborhood burned down three years ago. They said another zombie house is near Truman Elementary School with a kicked-in door and a pool in the back that’s becoming a public health hazard. Another on 52nd Street has tarps over its roof as well as an unkempt yard that they worry will become a fire hazard in the summer.

“I’m surprised this place hasn’t torched yet,” said Cabe.

Both say it’s not clear who is accountable for upkeep at zombie houses, because the owners are absent and various financial entities have interests in them. County records show both properties have liens placed on them. Attempts to reach the individuals listed as property owners were unsuccessful.

On the garage door to the 52nd Street house is an aging piece of paper instructing someone to call M & M Mortgage Services Inc. in case of an emergency. Jason Blilie, attorney for the Miami-based company, citing legal restrictions, declined to comment about the property. But he said the company is responsible for contacting the owner or any other interested parties if something happens to it.

Last year, the Washington State Supreme Court made it harder for banks to perform maintenance on these properties. The court ruled that even if a lender holds a deed of trust for a house, they are still prohibited from entering it to secure or maintain it without a court order.

Last year, MTGLQ Investors L.P., a subsidiary of global investment bank Goldman Sachs that holds the deed of trust and promissory note for the Carter house, initiated a judicial foreclosure on the property. The case is ongoing. Last month, an attorney for MTGLQ Investors successfully filed a court motion, which referenced code enforcement actions by Pridemore, that allowed its representatives to enter the property for maintenance.

Up until last month, Benedicktus said the house was unsecured, vandalized and covered with graffiti. According to county records, the “property owner” was assessed $16,500 in liens between March and April. Now the house is boarded up and has a padlock on the shed, which Benedicktus calls a “token gesture.”

Home run?

In an emailed statement, Rian Davis, public affairs director for the Clark County Association of Realtors, wrote that the current process for dealing with zombie properties is too slow. He pointed to legislation, which stalled in the Legislature, that he hopes will shorten it. The legislation would allow the Housing Finance Commission to issue a certificate of abandonment for properties. These certificates would allow and require banks that hold the deeds of trust to enter these properties to maintain them.

“There is the housing boom,” said Benedicktus. “But these houses fell by the wayside.”

Cabe and Benedicktus said it makes no sense for these properties to be stuck decaying when there is a high demand for housing. They’d like to see a nonprofit put them to use. But in the meantime, they’ll continue to wait and watch.