From the Record:
Maywood homeowner Joe Leichtnam spent some time recently trimming the shrubs, mowing the lawn and fixing the siding.
Not at his house; at the empty house next door. It’s a small effort to contain the chaos at the property, which is in foreclosure and has been vacant for several years. The house has a blue tarp covering a hole in the roof and overgrown bushes that threaten to engulf the deck.
The house on Edel Avenue is just one of thousands of vacant homes left by the housing bust all across North Jersey. Neighbors say they’re discouraged and disheartened by the sight of these neglected homes, which can remain empty for years while the foreclosure process grinds slowly forward.
If a neighboring house is empty and in disrepair because of a foreclosure, homeowners can complain to their town’s code enforcement officer. The town then has the power to contact the foreclosing lender, which by law is supposed to correct violations of the property tax code. If that doesn’t work, the town can send in workers to clean up the property and then place a lien on it to pay for the work. That way, the town is repaid either when the lien is purchased by an investor or when the house is sold at sheriff’s auction.
“It just detracts from the whole neighborhood,” said Leichtnam, a retired telecommunications professional. “It definitely has an impact on the value of the homes in the area.”
These homes are orphans of the real estate storm. The homeowners are gone. Foreclosing lenders don’t own the property, and generally do the minimum — mow the lawn or board up windows. Towns can step in, but their workforces are already stretched, and they don’t know when they’ll be reimbursed for the work. Without the level of care that homeowners typically give, the properties can fall into neglect and disrepair. So neighbors like Leichtnam, who see the value and appeal of their own homes threatened, take matters into their own hands.
The blight has not hit just lower- and middle-income areas. On McCain Court in Closter, for example, an empty McMansion sits in a cul-de-sac of half a dozen similar houses. The owner paid $929,000 for the home in 2000, but lender Keystone Nazareth Bank and Trust filed to foreclose in July 2008, according to public records.
Today, the house sits with expensive but overgrown landscaping, a knocked-over mailbox and signs of damage in a high corner where the side wall meets the roof. There’s a notice on the door from United Water, dating to December, warning that the water’s about to be turned off because of an unpaid bill of $1,367.
Mortgage companies will often turn off the water in a house to prevent burst pipes. But they don’t always act in time. Theresa Rolaf says an empty house on her street, Terrace Street in Bergenfield, was flooded when an upstairs pipe broke.
“I called the police and they came to shut the water off,” said Rolaf. “I’m sure there is a lot of damage inside.” The house is now owned by JPMorgan Chase, according to property records. A note on the door from the bank’s lawyers indicates that the homeowners gave the bank the deed, to head off a foreclosure.
The homes can stay vacant for years. It now takes, on average, more than 2½ years for lenders to go through the legal process to evict New Jersey homeowners who can’t pay their mortgages. The New Jersey foreclosure pipeline came to a near-halt in 2011 over sloppy paperwork by lenders — called “robo-signing” because lender representatives allegedly signed documents without checking them, in the rush to evict homeowners. The foreclosure machine has shown recent signs of starting up again in New Jersey, but with the backlog of properties in the system, distressed properties are likely to linger for years.
Because vacant homes can be a “calamity” in a neighborhood, Affuso, of the bankers’ group, said the state should try to streamline the foreclosure process on empty properties, since the homeowners obviously aren’t contesting the foreclosure. A recent bill proposed in the Legislature to turn foreclosed homes into affordable housing would help, because it sets out a way to identify vacant homes and allow banks to repossess them more quickly, he said.