September 19, 2014

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Vacant properties in legal limbo create grass nuisance in Lorain

LORAIN — Homeowner John Riley sees red when he looks at the waist-high weeds in the backyard of the abandoned house on the 1300 block of Redbud Place across the street from his house.

John Riley of Lorain stands in the tall grass in the backyard of a house on Redbud Place across from his home. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

John Riley of Lorain stands in the tall grass in the backyard of a house on Redbud Place across from his home. (CT photo by Bruce Bishop.)

Riley blames the city for not getting the company processing the foreclosure or the lender to mow the lawn. Riley said he’s called city officials six times since April before the city’s building department posted a June 7 notice warning the property owner that they had five days to mow the lawn or the city would mow it for $300 per hour.

“That makes me laugh,” Riley said Monday as he stared at the notice posted on the front porch. “If there’s nobody here, who the hell’s going to come and read it?”

A notice posted Monday on the porch from MCS/Century Homes said the company would, “address the violations.”

Riley is irritated with city officials’ response after they recently publicized efforts to cut down on lawns above 10 inches high. Riley, who takes care of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia patients in his home, worries that poor upkeep of the abandoned house will hurt the neighborhood.

But the problem isn’t confined to Riley’s neighborhood. There are Redbud Places all over Lorain: Well-kept blocks blighted by one or two foreclosed homes that can be magnets for arsons, burglaries and drug use.

With one in every 653 homes in foreclosure in April, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate website, Lorain actually is below the Ohio rate of one in 640 and the national rate of one in 593. Nonetheless, foreclosures are up dramatically nationally and expected to continue to rise in the sluggish economy.

There were 3.8 million foreclosures nationally last year, up 2 percent from 2009 and up 23 percent from 2008. RealtyTrac predicts the numbers will increase this year compared with last year when foreclosures slowed in the fourth quarter due to paperwork problems.

Lorain Safety Director Phil Dore, who asked residents to alert the city about high lawns, said the city wants to be responsive, but it’s overwhelmed.

“It’s now all of a sudden a community problem, whereas before it was a sporadic problem,” Dore said.

Dore said last year about 1,200 violations were reported with the city cutting about 300 lawns. About 700 residents complied after being warned, and the city was unable to address the remaining complaints due to understaffing.

Dore said city crews can only mow about six lots per day.

“When you’ve got a crew that’s doing six lots a day and you’ve got 1,200 of them, it becomes a problem that you’re just not going to catch up with,” he said.

Besides understaffing, Dore said the city is unable to fine lenders or mortgage processors while abandoned properties are in foreclosure, an often lengthy process. State Rep. Dennis Murray, D-Sandusky, has sponsored a bill to speed up foreclosures that he hopes will become law in the fall.

Murray said unscrupulous lenders or mortgage processors sometimes stall the process, hoping property values will increase. Murray said “toxic titles” stick cities with maintenance responsibilities.

“The properties basically fall apart by the time the government can take the property back in its name and try to do something with it,” he said. “Eventually the property goes through a tax foreclosure (and) the city never gets (most of) its money back.”

Murray’s bill would strip lenders of their liens on properties if they don’t expeditiously move them to county sheriff’s sales. The properties would then be turned over to county land banks, which can often use federal taxpayer money to demolish or rehabilitate homes.

Rich Pace, president of Fairlawn-based The Bankers Guarantee Title & Trust Co., said he’s personally mowed lawns on abandoned properties his company is processing. Pace said foreclosures in Ohio are unduly long, which decreases the chances of sales.

“We’re not for ramming foreclosures through,” Pace said. “(But) in the case of an abandoned property, the longer that property sits, the worse condition it becomes.”

Murray admits it’s galling that predatory lenders who made balloon rate or No Income, No Assets loans that collapsed the housing market, aren’t being punished for not maintaining abandoned homes they helped empty. However, he believes speeding foreclosures is a better solution.

Murray said mowing high lawns just treats the symptom of the problem.

“The real root cause is that you’ve got these properties that are in sort of a legal state of limbo,” he said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.