A vacant house that sustained fire damage is seen on Student Drive on Jan.… (Matt McClain/THE WASHINGTON…)
The two-story brick house in Clinton had been vacant for two years when the vandalism began. First, a door was busted. Then a window was shattered. Then the air conditioning unit was stolen.
Neighbors tried for months to get the foreclosed house on Student Drive boarded up. Finally, about 6 p.m. New Year’s Day, Leroy Button looked out his window and saw the five-year-old house across the street engulfed in flames — a blaze being investigated as a possible arson. The next morning, all that was left was a charred shell and a sense of frustration.
“Why they didn’t board it up, I don’t know,” said Button, who summoned police to the house several times and tried contacting the loan servicer. “I said, ‘You going to wait until the house catches fire?’ And sure enough . . . ”
This is what the end of a housing crisis looks like: steadily rising home prices, foreclosure filings at five-year lows, but also millions of vacant foreclosed homes.
Years after the housing market crashed, recovering communities from Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., continue to grapple with a glut of vacant properties, which drag down property values, attract vandals and drain public resources.
While Prince George’s County escaped the kind of double-digit vacancy rates seen in Nevada and Florida, it had one of the highest percentages of vacant homes of any county in the Washington region.
About 7.4 percent of homes in Prince George’s, one of the Maryland jurisdictions hit hardest by foreclosures, were vacant in the 2010 Census, compared with 4.6 percent in Prince William County, another local epicenter of the housing meltdown.
The housing market in Prince George’s turned a corner in the spring, said Lisa Sturtevant, who studies housing data for George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis. Prices have been slowly climbing ever since, providing hope to the more than half of Prince George’s homeowners who owe more than their houses are worth.
But there is still a stubborn backlog of foreclosures, created by a nationwide moratorium on foreclosures two years ago and by a Maryland foreclosure process that averages more than 500 days, one of the nation’s longest.
As a result, houses in Prince George’s are still sitting empty two or three years after foreclosure.
No one is sure how many vacant houses there are. The county’s registry of foreclosed properties now tops 51,000, according to the Department of Environmental Resources. In July, the department, which oversees code enforcement, started tracking vacant properties that are the target of complaints. So far, it knows of 1,922.
But the actual number of vacant foreclosures is likely higher. Nationally, as many as 50 percent of homes in foreclosure are vacant by the time the process is over, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2011.
Vacant properties impose costs on communities whether they tend to them or not. Neglect, maintenance and demolition all come with a price.
In Maryland, officials have tried various strategies to deal with problem, including distributing funds to buy, renovate and resell vacant foreclosures. In October, they began fast-tracking foreclosures of some abandoned properties and began requiring banks to register foreclosed homes to help local code enforcers.
The majority of bank-owned homes are well-maintained, said Anthony Williams, president of the Prince George’s County Association of Realtors. But when they are not, sorting out who is responsible can be tricky. Homeowners are supposed to keep up their residence until it is auctioned. If they don’t or they walk away, the bank could step in, but they are not necessarily obligated to.
“It is very frustrating,” said Hank Jacob, vice president of community management for Allied Realty Corp., a Bethesda-based company that manages townhouse communities in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. “With a lot of these foreclosures, we get into gray areas. Our hands are tied because it’s not our property.”
Cash-strapped local governments have had to shoulder the cost of boarding up windows, cutting grass, or even demolishing vacant bank-owned properties, the GAO report found.
Prince George’s spent $731,674 last year fixing up vacant properties, $100,000 more than in 2011.
The burden is even harder to bear for small municipalities such as Capitol Heights, which has one of the highest foreclosure rates in Maryland, state data show. The town now spends nearly $50,000 a year complying with court orders to address code violations, said Keith Credit, neighborhood services director. That is a significant amount for a town of just over 4,000 people, with a total budget of $3 million.
In nearby Suitland, another foreclosure hot spot, people who live around vacant foreclosures sometimes step in to mow grass and deal with unopened mail or other giveaways that the house is unoccupied.