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Blight moves in after foreclosures

Untended properties become eyesores. Then there are the uninvited guests: mosquitoes, vandals and squatters.

August 28, 2007|David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writer

Houses abandoned to foreclosure are beginning to breed trouble, adding neighbors to the growing ranks of victims.

Stagnant swimming pools spawn mosquitoes, which can carry the potentially deadly West Nile virus. Empty rooms lure squatters and vandals. And brown lawns and dead vegetation are creating eyesores in well-tended neighborhoods.

In Northridge, the house next door to Michael McKenna's was put on the market, sold and then foreclosed on, all in the space of a few months last spring.

With the five-bedroom home now forsaken and deserted, McKenna has been reluctantly cutting the lawn and dumping chemicals in the pool to kill the bugs.

"I resent having to do this," the former studio production manager said. "It's breaking my back."

More than 100 houses a day are being foreclosed on in Southern California, up from 13 a day last year. That's still a relative handful for such a populous area, but even the optimists predict that the problem will soon get much worse.

If the foreclosure trend continues on its current pace, experts warn, communities will need to act decisively to avoid blight.

"We know it's coming," said Tina Hess, the assistant Los Angeles city attorney who handles housing enforcement and problem properties.

Hess is proposing that the number of inspectors in L.A.'s vacant-building program be nearly doubled, from the current 15 to 27. Inspectors can order pools to be fenced and houses to be secured against trespassers.

Homeowners like McKenna, 47, and his friend Israel Del Pino, 54, who lives on the other side of the foreclosed property, are eager for stepped-up enforcement. Their efforts to contact an owner, lender or real estate agent responsible for the house have proved fruitless.

"We're getting the raw end of the deal here," McKenna said. "No one will take responsibility."

In another Los Angeles cul-de-sac, this one off Coldwater Canyon Drive near Beverly Hills, the neighbors have the opposite problem. Here's a foreclosed house that should be empty and isn't.

The mansion in question was bought by a man in early 2005 for $1.4 million. By last fall he was gone and the property was in foreclosure.

HSBC, a major lender that was carrying the biggest note on the house, asked Leo Nordine, a real estate agent who specializes in foreclosures, to represent it for sale.

Nordine went to check out the property and realized that people were living there. He left them a polite letter on the kitchen counter. There was no response to that letter, nor to follow-ups that he mailed.

Neighbors, who asked that their names not be used because they were worried about their safety, said the occupants were a group of men apparently in their 20s and 30s. The men take the trash out every week, but that was the only good thing the neighbors had to say.

Nordine said that HSBC was pursuing a formal eviction but that it would probably take many months. The HSBC manager in charge of the foreclosure didn't respond to questions.

On a recent evening, the front door was open. The inhabitants declined to respond to a reporter's queries.

Authorities and real estate agents say similar problems arose during the wave of foreclosures in the 1990s, when houses stayed empty for months.

Chris Ragsdale, the Los Angeles Police Department's senior lead officer for Westwood and Bel-Air, recalled one case from the end of that era, when a group of men moved into a foreclosed house in Pacific Palisades. The squatters changed the locks, turned on the electricity and brought in furniture. When the agent trying to sell the place showed up, they maintained that they had a lease.

"If you know what you're doing, you can get six months in a place with a kick-ass view," Ragsdale said.

That's because the police tend to take a pass if the case is more complicated than basic breaking and entering. For one thing, they can't be positive it's not a valid lease.

"We're all liability-conscious," Ragsdale said. "It's a civil matter."

Paul Cargile, a Westchester foreclosure specialist, took over a South L.A. house a few months ago. When he sent his cleaning crew in to prepare it for sale, they found a woman living there. She produced a lease showing she had paid a man claiming to be the owner $1,600 in first month's rent and deposit.

Cargile gave her $2,000 to leave.

"It's easier than going to court," he said.

If squatters are a throwback to previous real estate downturns, the West Nile virus is new this time around. Standing water is a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes, which catch West Nile from infected birds and transmit it to humans. Seven state residents with West Nile have died this year.

Mosquito abatement programs around California are trying to cope with the wave of foreclosures, especially in outlying areas that have been hardest hit. The Antelope Valley Mosquito and Vector Control District said it treated 65 pools at vacant homes last month, up from 15 in July 2006.

"We used to have just one or two people doing pools," district spokeswoman Leann Verdick said.

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