Abandoned Foreclosures a Mounting Crisis in Florida

Manatee – A mounting crisis created by the record number of foreclosures in Manatee County has hit Jeannette Traylor right where she lives: An abandoned foreclosed home has brought blight, crime and fear into her neighborhood.

For Traylor, it is becoming harder and harder each day to remember what the home used to be: a quaint three-bedroom, two-bath house nestled in a Northwest Bradenton neighborhood filled with similar homes and families living the quiet life. But the home at 5504 Fourth Ave. NW now stands out.

And not in a good way.

On the outside, a side door that has been repeatedly ripped out has plywood covering broken windows; a wooden fence around the backyard sits on its side, leaving an exposed pool filled with black, filthy water.

Inside is worse.

A stench of mold and signs of intruders are everywhere, a realization that has Traylor both scared and angry that she is losing the neighborhood where she has lived for 13 years.

“This is Northwest Bradenton, would you ever think this could happen here?” she asks. “I mean, I raised my kids here.”

Traylor easily gains access into the foreclosed home through the busted side door and walks through the house. Beer cans, cigarette butts and dirt litter the rugs in every room. Since she was last inside three days ago, two pallets made up of sheets and pillows have appeared in two bedrooms, obvious signs that intruders have been sleeping there.

In one bedroom, a metal spoon sits on the floor next to spent packages of cold medicine, often used to make methamphetamine. In another bedroom, next to a pallet, a bag of marijuana lies on the carpet.

“Pretty deplorable, isn’t it?” Traylor said, shaking her head.

Deplorable, but common in a county where 6,390 homes were foreclosed on last year, compared with 592 in 2005, when the same home on Traylor’s block was purchased for $282,400. Once-valuable homes throughout the county are becoming headaches for neighbors, county officials and law enforcement alike.

No one knows exactly how many homes have been abandoned in Manatee County, but it is hard to find a neighborhood without at least one, according to Manatee County Housing Director John Barnott.

“They are everywhere,” Barnott said. “It is a problem in the best neighborhoods, and the worst. I have people walking away from million-dollar homes because they have lost everything.”

And when that happens, a vicious cycle ensues. Owners of homes disappear and become hard to find, and banks burdened with a landslide of foreclosures are increasingly taking little interest in the properties.

It makes for a situation ripe for vandalism and squatting, as well as a haven for teens to party, and drug addicts to get high.

Law’s Hands are Tied

There is little law enforcement can do when concerned homeowners call for help, unless an owner can be found and seeks to have the intruders trespassed from a particular site. But for properties that nobody cares about anymore, that can be tough, according to Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube.

“Basically we can come in and tell them they need to get out of there, and most often they do. But really, we are just calling their bluff,” Steube said after a recent sheriff’s luncheon in which Traylor’s husband, Harry, pleaded for help from law enforcement and county officials.

“If they say no, there is really nothing we can do without an owner.”

Traylor has called the sheriff’s office numerous times when intruders have broken into the abandoned home. The last time she called, a sheriff’s deputy caught three teenagers in the house, the oldest being 16, but no arrests were made.

That’s because the owner, Tse Wei Chang of Tampa, couldn’t be located. The teens were later released to their parents.

In December 2008, the Bank of New York foreclosed on Chang’s mortgage of $290,356.18, and he went into default after not responding to the lawsuit, according to court records.

But there has been no action on the loan since May 2009, as the bank has not sought a final judgment from a judge to take over the property. An attorney with the Tampa firm Shapiro & Fishman, which is handling the foreclosure for the bank, declined comment.

A bank can take as long as it wants to obtain a final judgment. Many hold off for months to avoid taking ownership — and the financial obligations — of the property and to keep them off their books.

Traylor said Chang used to rent the house, but no renter has been there for months.

Traylor also has been in contact with William Bach of BBRI Real Estate Advisors in Tampa, a Realtor who apparently is trying to complete a $98,000 short sale on the property.

Bach has been sympathetic to her pleas for Chang’s home to be secured and cleaned up, Traylor said, but help is not expected.

Bach declined to comment for this story.

“He flat out told me that the owner has no intention of putting any money into it,” Traylor said.

Chang could not be located for comment.

Burden on County Grows

Traylor’s fight to bring attention to the deteriorating home ends up in the lap of law enforcement and county officials.

“We deal with numerous complaints just like this daily,” Barnott said. “We have done everything within our rights with that house.”

Manatee County code enforcement has cited Chang for the exposed pool, and the fallen fence has since been propped up and held in place with a piece of lawn furniture.

In general, when code enforcement cites an owner for a violation on a property, fines mount if a property owner doesn’t remedy the situation, said the county’s Code Enforcement Chief Joe Fenton. If the fines are not addressed, then a lien can eventually be placed on the property.

But that takes time and money if the county eventually takes ownership of a property.

“I don’t want these properties,” Barnott said. “Now I have to spend taxpayers’ dollars to fix the place up, and hope to make the money back at an auction.”

To make matters worse for homeowners like Traylor, the county has no right to make repairs on a piece of property it does not own, unless it meets the steep criteria of being deemed “unsafe.”

“Is a broken window or door unsightly? Yes. Is it unsafe? No,” Barnott said.

So county officials are in the process of drafting a housing code that would allow them to work on homes that are falling into disrepair. The ordinance is expected to allow the county to board up windows and doors, and make other efforts to secure homes, should an owner refuse.

But the ordinance is not expected to make it to a county commission workshop for months. And even if something passes, there may not be money in the budget for supplies to meet the demand from homeowners for help, Barnott said.

Calls for Help Soar

As conditions on thousands of abandoned and foreclosed home have deteriorated, law enforcement has seen a dramatic spike in calls for service at the homes.

“It has been a huge difference in terms of calls for service since the foreclosures began,” said sheriff’s road patrol Capt. Dan Kaufman.

Dealing with the problem is getting costly.

The calls for service vary — from dealing with gang graffiti to the homeless breaking into the houses — and they all take time. It falls to the deputy to make every effort to find a property’s owner.

“These calls can take a long time, and it takes a deputy away from a higher priority call,” said Kaufman.

Sheriff’s officials say they must address the problem in this year’s budget, even though the sheriff’s office is not yet specifically tracking service calls to abandoned and foreclosed homes.

The sheriff’s office is drafting a strategic plan for the county that will outline upcoming budget needs, which is expected to include funding for patrol and service calls at abandoned and foreclosed homes, according to sheriff’s Col. Chuck Hagaman.

Some financial help is on the horizon.

Federal dollars have been allotted to Manatee County to tear down blighted structures that can be proven to have been abandoned. The county has received $400,000 from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program that must be spent by the end of the summer, according to Bill O’Shea, of the county’s neighborhood services department.

There are 75 properties slated for razing throughout the county that meet federa criteria as being in low-income neighborhoods.

Several low-income neighborhoods in Manatee — including the Memphis, Oneco and Samoset areas — are also slated to receive federal funding for rehabilitation of foreclosed properties there, as part of the stabilization program.

But for homeowners like Traylor, who live in neighborhoods with higher income levels than those covered by federal funds, there is little help on the horizon in the fight for their backyard.

“I love this neighborhood, and it will be a tragedy if it continues down this path,” she said. “It has been so bad that we seriously thought about leaving.

“And that’s how it starts.”