Abandoned Homes Plague Florida, Even In Midst Of Housing Boom

NBC NEWS -- Florida Housing Crisis -- Pictured: In this Lehigh Acres, Florida, neighborhood, home after abandoned home reflec
NBC NEWS -- Florida Housing Crisis -- Pictured: In this Lehigh Acres, Florida, neighborhood, home after abandoned home reflects the dismal state of the housing market -- Photo by: Stephanie Himango/NBC NewsWire

As Kevin Clark figures it, the feral cats that stalk the thick bamboo jungle in the backyard of the abandoned home next door should at least keep the huge rats in check. That, unfortunately, hasn't proved to be the case.

The rats and the cats scurry in and out of the yard of the Tampa, Fla., property seemingly unconcerned by the others' presence. Other varmints, such as opossums and raccoons, also take advantage of the cover provided by the towering woody stalks, which grow more than 20 feet high. The worst might be the insects: Every evening, a veritable attack squadron of mosquitoes buzzes out of the growth, as if taking their cue from the jets that take off and land at the nearby Air Force base.

The infestation is so severe that Clark refuses to allow his 5-year-old grandson, who lives with him, to venture outside alone. "I'm afraid of what will come creeping out of there," he said.

After the housing market collapsed in spectacular fashion six years ago, Florida became known as much for its abandoned houses as its white sand beaches and palm trees. Many homes fell into disrepair and became the target of looters and vagrants.

In some respects, the situation in the state is much improved. Foreclosures are down and home prices are up, especially in the cities where values fell the most. In Florida's biggest cities, investors backed by Wall Street cash and local speculators are scooping up homes practically as soon as they hit the market. In Tampa, one of the hardest-hit cities, residential property prices increased 12 percent in April, according to a report released this week. Many housing experts even caution that prices are going up too fast.

Yet despite the intense demand for seemingly anything with four walls and a roof, abandoned properties like the one that is vexing Clark and his family still dot Florida's cities and suburbs. These are homes that are vacant, but have not yet been foreclosed on. In many instances, these "zombie" properties sit empty for years, as foreclosures wind slowly through Florida's courts.

As of May, there were 55,500 abandoned homes in the state, one-third of the national total, according to RealtyTrac, an online real estate company.

"I see them everywhere, especially in the inner core of the city," said Marquaz McGhee, the housing programs manager at the Community Development Corp. of Tampa, a nonprofit group. "I even see them next to the golf course."

Until last month, McGhee said, the home across the street from where he lives was abandoned. The bank would send a contractor to mow the grass every month or two, but that wasn't nearly sufficient in Florida's hot, sunny climate.

Neighbors would take turns mowing the grass themselves, he said.

When a home is abandoned, it becomes the responsibility of the bank or mortgage company that serviced the home mortgage to keep the property from falling into disrepair. This means fixing broken windows, ensuring pipes don't freeze and covering empty swimming pools.

A recent investigation by The Huffington Post uncovered widespread evidence of abuse and misconduct by the local contractors hired to do this dirty and sometimes dangerous work. Internal documents, government audits and many of the contractors themselves portrayed an industry that grew too fast, without proper oversight.

Though many contractors diligently do the work that's required, some have been accused of breaking into still-occupied homes and stealing possessions. Others take potentially harmful shortcuts in fixing up the interiors, such as painting over mold rather than properly removing it. These so-called property preservation companies too often don't oversee their contract workers, according to many of those interviewed. And the banks and mortgage companies are failing to oversee everyone involved, insiders claim.

For neighbors and the surrounding community, the most obvious evidence of neglect is an overgrown or trash-filled lawn. At best, this form of neglect creates an eyesore. At worst, towering weeds and grass provide safe haven for snakes, varmints and insects, and advertise to the world that the home on the property is neglected.

Clark lives in a neighborhood on the southernmost edge of Tampa near MacDill Air Force Base, a mile or so away. The decline of the home next door from well-tended owner-occupied residence to a veritable Wild Kingdom closely tracks the rise and fall of Florida's real estate market.

Up until the middle part of the last decade, the abandoned home was one of the most attractive on the block. Margaret Weekes bought it for $100,000 in 2000. In an interview, Weekes said she frequently received compliments from neighbors on the beauty of her flower garden. A back deck was used for entertaining and relaxing on warm evenings, she said.

In 2007, Weekes sold the property to Lorena Delvillar for $225,000. Delvillar could not be reached for this story, but public records show that she filed for bankruptcy protection the next year, and ran afoul of various credit card and auto loan creditors. She moved out not long after, neighbors say.

Today, a little-known mortgage-servicing arm of IBM called Seterus is responsible for the property. Seterus, in turn, contracted maintenance responsibilities to Safeguard Properties, based near Cleveland.

Clark said that he began placing calls to Safeguard soon after he bought his home 10 months ago. A lawn care company came and tended to the overgrown front yard, bagging up the clippings and tossing them to rot in a pile on the side of the house. Workers refused to enter the backyard, Clark said, even though the bamboo is threatening to push down the privacy fence that separates the two properties.

The bamboo is an invasive and particularly quick-growing variety that can grow two or three feet a day. After it rains, new shoots sprout up in Clark's yard. To stop its advance, Clark said, he hacks off new stalks and pours kerosene on the stumps. "It's like a war," he said.

Clark claims he has called Safeguard to complain more than 30 times, all told. Each time, he said, he spoke with a different representative. One recent call ended, he claims, with a Safeguard employee suggesting that he move somewhere else.

Seterus did not respond to requests for comment. Diane Fusco, a Safeguard spokeswoman, said customer service records indicated the company had received calls from neighbors, but that the volume was "not nearly as high" as what Clark alleges.

"We have no way to prove or disprove the alleged response from one of our customer service representatives," Fusco said in an email. "However, we would not tolerate such a statement. We routinely perform quality control on all of our customer service representatives to assure that they are responding professionally to callers."

Fusco said that the company would immediately send workers to clear the backyard.

Some calls are apparently more influential than others. Clark said he returned home from work Wednesday evening to find two trucks with huge trailers parked outside the abandoned property. Both were already filled to the top with cut bamboo. The workers left with the backyard half-cleared, but promised they would return Thursday to finish the job.

Clark said the team lead told him they would be back weekly to ensure the growth was kept in check.

Clark and his neighbors stood in the failing light and watched the trucks pull away. "We were giddy," he said. He said he hopes Safeguard lives up to its pledge.

Bamboo grows quickly and the forecast calls for rain.



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