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Vacant foreclosures ding neighborhood values in Pa.

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The house at 131 Washington Avenue in Bellevue is a vacant foreclosure that will be sold at a sheriff's sale on April 7. The house has been in foreclosure since December of 2012.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The house at 131 Washington Avenue in Bellevue is a vacant foreclosure that will be sold at a sheriff's sale on April 7. The house has been in foreclosure since December of 2012.

Nobody lives in the home next to Kimberly Merida.

The three-story Bellevue house, which is in foreclosure, was abandoned last summer. Merida's husband mows the yard to keep it from getting overgrown and, apart from needing a fresh coat of paint on the stairwell, the house hasn't fallen into disrepair.

But if someone doesn't claim the vacant property soon, it may become a problem for Merida. She has been thinking about putting her house on the market in a year or two, and abandoned properties tend to bring down a neighborhood's real estate values.

“It might be (a concern) because foreclosures sell for less,” she said.

Abandoned foreclosures remain a stubborn drag on the post-recession housing recovery, economists say. And in states that handle foreclosure through the courts, like Pennsylvania, the effect is particularly acute.

The entire process can take months longer than in non-judicial foreclosure states, leaving vacant properties to sit untouched and deteriorating until they are sold at a sheriff's auction. Even the fastest foreclosures in Pennsylvania take five months, and the average is nearly two years, according to figures from RealtyTrac. Only 10 states had longer average timelines.

Equally important, however, is the time it takes to move these homes through the courts. The house next to Merida's has been in foreclosure since December 2012. But there may be a way to speed things along.

At least seven states have passed laws to “fast-track” foreclosures through the courts if the property has been abandoned. Pennsylvania is not among them.

These fast-track laws take on varied forms, but all generally authorize banks to skip over longer time frames for notices and the exercise of redemption rights that would otherwise apply under the state's foreclosure laws, according to a recent report from the National Consumer Law Center.

Fast-track an option?

Consumer advocates warn that fast-track laws must apply only to vacant properties and be crafted so people have every opportunity to stay in their homes. But economists and bankers say fast-tracking foreclosures could inject some life into the housing market.

Nearly 36,500 homes in Pennsylvania were in foreclosure in February, according to RealtyTrac. Pittsburgh hasn't been hit as hard as eastern parts of the state, but there are neighborhoods where foreclosure rates are comparatively high. Penn Hills has the highest rate in the region, affecting one out of every 613 homes, or more than twice the statewide average.

Roughly 16 percent of foreclosed homes in Pennsylvania are vacant, said Thomas Fitzpatrick, an economist who wrote about the issue for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. Fast-tracking them could shave weeks off the time it takes to wrap up the process.

That would save an estimated $54 million in maintenance, taxes and repair costs for creditors and boost home values in neighborhoods where vacant properties are a problem, he said.

The idea has piqued the interest of banking and community development officials, who see it as a way to get vacant properties back on the market faster and into the hands of new owners who will fix them up, pay taxes and improve the overall economy.

“The judicial process by its nature takes a lot longer,” said Michael Frantantoni, chief economist with the Mortgage Bankers Association. “And time is money.”

‘Time is not friendly'

Homeowner advocates urge caution, lest banks forget the lessons of the recent past.

It has been less than two years since banks that were too eager to foreclose on properties paid billions of dollars to settle charges that employees lied on affidavits and rushed through foreclosures without ever looking at the paperwork. Also, there have been instances when people have been evicted by banks that didn't go through the necessary steps to ensure that no one still lived there.

Consumer advocates say fast-track laws must be explicit about protecting homeowner rights and never apply to occupied properties.

“You have to be very careful with delinquencies and make sure the property is truly vacant,” said Dan Sullivan, a mortgage foreclosure prevention specialist with the non-profit Action Housing. “I think that's the bear they're going to have to wrestle with.”

Fitzpatrick agrees that fast-track laws should only target vacant homes. After all, there is an economic incentive to keep someone living in a house, maintaining it and keeping the property from becoming derelict and losing value.

“What we're trying to do is identify costs without benefits,” Fitzpatrick said. “It's only when there is no one living in the house that there are no benefits to the cost.”

Abandoned properties generally have been a concern in parts of Pittsburgh where homes were built in sloped and flood-prone areas, places that probably should never have been developed, said Kyra Straussman, director of real estate for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh. Neighborhoods such as the Hill District, Sheraden and East Liberty have been particularly affected, she said. The longer those properties sit empty, the greater their decline.

“Time is not friendly to unoccupied properties,” she said.

Value of occupancy

Indeed, there are advantages to keeping people in their homes.

The Carrick house where Wes and Christine Wyse raised their two daughters has been in foreclosure for a year and a half.

Still, had the process moved faster, they might not have had time to connect with an advocate who helped them navigate the courts.

“Had you sped it up, oh my God,” Wes Wyse said. “We probably would've been kicked out of this house.”

Beyond its financial worth, the house carries sentimental value for the Wyses, having been in Christine's family since 1978. Wes has put his contractor skills to use in maintaining the property and its value throughout the foreclosure process.

The Wyses have been approved for a trial mortgage modification that will allow them to stay in their home. Still, there is uncertainty.

“While you're hopeful (the modification) is going to happen, you're still wondering when the sheriff is going to show up and tell us to get out of our house,” Wes Wyse said. “There's no peace.”

In January, federal regulators enhanced protections for homeowners who fall behind on payments. The new loan-servicing standards from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau compel banks to give a higher level of attention to delinquent borrowers in helping them repay their loan.

And as states craft laws aimed at speeding up foreclosures, the bureau will want to keep an eye out for potential abuse, Sullivan said.

“I would want to make sure the CFPB would be very concerned with making sure servicers had gone through all the correct steps to make sure that homeowners can stay in their houses,” he said.

Protections weighed

The National Consumer Law Center has raised that concern. Its January report reviewed fast-track laws in Michigan, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Indiana, New Jersey, Nevada and Illinois and found the consumer protections varied significantly.

Such laws must be specific about steps to contact home-owners and the process of determining whether a property was abandoned, the center said. Also, banks should be required to maintain the house while waiting to sell it, and mortgage servicers should inspect the homes regularly and “not be allowed to pick and choose which abandoned properties they would like to sell on an expedited basis,” the report said.

Fitzpatrick agreed that legislation must be crafted with explicit protections for homeowners. And though they could help, fast-tracking laws will go only so far in addressing the larger problem of vacant properties, he said.

“A fast track can address some of the problem, but it's not a silver bullet,” Fitzpatrick said. “It's not a panacea.”

In Bellevue, Merida said she is not too worried about the abandoned house next to hers. It hasn't attracted squatters or criminal activity.

“Honestly, I'm not concerned about my safety,” she said.

But the price it fetches when it goes to sheriff's auction this month could affect her home's value. Hopefully, it won't sell too cheaply, she said. At least it could bring someone new to live there.

Then, there would be only the abandoned house across the street to worry about.

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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