Hold owners of vacant properties accountable

The News TribuneMarch 15, 2013 

The housing market is improving, with inventory going down and prices ticking up. People who had been hesitant to list their homes for sale are rethinking that choice.

But many potential sellers face a challenge: that foreclosed house on the street, maybe even next door. It might have an unmown lawn, trash in the front yard attracting rodents, broken windows, even drug-using squatters living inside.

Who would want to buy a home near that?

These vacant, often-trashed houses are the unfortunate aftermath of the underwater housing crisis – and they’re suppressing property values in their neighborhoods. Most have been foreclosed on, but tracking down the responsible party can be a chore.

That’s where a registry would come in handy. To address the problem created by vacant properties, many communities nationwide have started requiring lenders to register foreclosures so that the owners can be contacted and held responsible for basic maintenance. If they fail to act, they can face escalating enforcement steps including financial penalties and even criminal action.

The Pierce County Council is considering creating such a registry for the more than 6,000 homes that are at some stage in the foreclosure process. It’s a good idea and would give the county enforcement power it currently lacks.

Championed by County Councilman Stan Flemming, the proposal won unanimous “do pass” support from the Economic and Infrastructure Development Committee that he chairs. It will probably be voted on by the full council in late June. In the meantime, it will be honed by Pierce County Responds, a unit of Public Works & Utility.

Some suggestions: The registry should also apply to vacant land and commercial property, not just to residences. And there should be an annual fee to cover the costs of enforcement. Elsewhere, that fee is $122 in Tampa, $155 in Los Angeles and $200 in Las Vegas.

If the housing market is to recover, owners who have been taking care of their properties shouldn’t be penalized by those who haven’t. Lenders holding on to foreclosed properties need to either get them cleaned up and sold or tear them down. It’s unfair to neighborhoods to leave them in trashy condition.

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