The issue of so-called “zombie homes” is a problem for any major city. “Zombie homes” is a colorful name for an old problem, and one that continues to be widespread as the nation gains more distance from the housing crisis and the Great Recession. Zombie homes are created when the foreclosure process begins, the homeowner moves out, but then the foreclosure is canceled for one reason or another, leaving the home unoccupied—and often falling into disrepair. The issue—and misunderstandings surrounded it—is highlighted in a new story about how Portland, Oregon, is tackling the problem.
The Portland Tribune reported recently that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has reversed a policy put in place by his predecessor that was designed to crack down on zombie homes, threatening foreclosure on the properties in order either to force landlords to attend to the homes’ upkeep or get them into different hands. However, while former Mayor Charlie Hales pushed the Portland City Council to crack down on zombie properties, Wheeler considers the problem less of a priority.
Wheeler told the Tribune, "The obstacles for government to take away someone's property are formidable. It's a very expensive, multi-year process. I'm not sure that's the best use of our resources."
Of course, the problem with typical zombie properties is that there isn’t anyone in the house to be forced out. With the properties trapped in something like limbo, it’s hard to find a good solution for any of the parties involved, from the bank or mortgage company left holding the property, to the city governments tasked with fighting urban blight. As evidenced in Portland, even when one party comes up with a plan to address the issue, that plan can crumble in the wake of budget cuts or political change.
Would Hales' plan have worked in the longer term? According to the Tribune, Portland only used the threat of foreclosure to force landlords to take care of their derelict properties in 10 cases during the previous 18 months. Of those 10 properties, the Tribune reports that “Landlords for eight of them paid off the liens before the auctions were set. The ninth was paid off just before the auction. The 10th was paid off after it failed to sell at the first auction but before the second auction was held.”
With Wheeler reversing course on Hales’ policy, the city is now effectively back where it was before that policy was put in place ... and the city's zombie homes still remain.
Several American cities have been trying to fast-track foreclosures in recent years as a means of combating blight and zombie properties. Fast-track foreclosure laws are already on the books in Ohio and Maryland, with states such as Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York possibly following suit. Some municipalities are also trying to combat the individual symptoms of blight, such as in the case of Ohio’s banning of the use of plywood on vacant properties. In November 2016, Fannie Mae announced it would allow mortgage servicers to use clearboarding on vacant homes in pre-foreclosure, striking another blow against one of the tell-tale visual signs of zombie homes and urban blight.
In part three of a three-part series earlier this year, Robert Klein, Founder and Chairman of Safeguard Properties and SecureView, told DS News, "It’s all about keeping people in their homes as long as possible, but, once abandoned, a house becomes a liability. Fast-tracking enables the mortgage servicer to get possession of the property before it deteriorates. This directly leads to on-time conveyance and faster rehab and sale.”
Fast-tracking foreclosures—or even threatening to do so—can be one effective way to combat the zombie home plague, but evidenced by Portland’s problems, it isn’t always a politically popular approach.