After gang members turned an empty house in Pomona into their party hangout, the agent representing the foreclosure property gave them the personal heave-ho by simply moving in.
Nobody bothered Ron Anderson -- who is 6 foot 2 and weighs 240 pounds -- as he replaced busted windows, painted over graffiti and removed empty beer bottles from what had once been a quaint family abode.
"I told the old owner that we needed a live body in there to show the trespassers that it wasn't an abandoned house," said Anderson, 47, of Century 21 Success' Signal Hill office, who rented and lived in the ranch-style Towne Avenue home for eights months before it sold. "Most of the times properties are invaded because there is nobody there to stop them."
Unfortunately, there's just one Anderson and scads of empty foreclosure homes, as a market gashed by sub-prime mortgages staggers into its second year. Nearly 32,000 Californians lost their homes in the quarter ending Dec. 31, a new record, according to DataQuick Information Service.
If experiences from the housing dip of the '90s and recent studies are any barometer, even homeowners sitting pretty with their own mortgages should be concerned about vacant houses.
Every time a neighborhood experiences 2.8 foreclosures out of 100 owner-occupied properties in a single year, crime there and in the surrounding blocks jumps 6.7%, according to a 2006 census tract study by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute. A related study by the same researchers concluded that homeowners lose 0.9% of their property value if they are within one-eighth of a mile from a conventionally foreclosed-on, single-family residence. A $500,000 home, for example, would drop $4,500.
"The value of your property is tied to the ability to sell it, and if somebody comes to your block and sees a property across the street with boarded-up windows, looking battered, that's an exponential impact," said Geoff Smith, one of the study's authors. In densely packed communities, a concentration of foreclosures makes it even harder for other homes to sell, he added.
Although empty residences are a hot topic for communities, they are not a popular subject for some lenders.
Washington Mutual, for example, won't divulge its policies toward unoccupied, foreclosed-on houses, company spokesman Gary Kishner said.
During Southern California's depressed housing market early last decade, the connection between unoccupied dwellings and criminal activity was evident. Vacated properties across the region attracted crooks and miscreant teenagers in a phenomenon that exasperated neighbors and overwhelmed local cities.
In the southern end of then-bustling Fontana, empty homes were beacons for troublemakers, including scam artists who tried leasing residences they didn't own to unsuspecting renters. Even in established, middle-class communities such as Sherman Oaks, squatters crept in, with drug activity sometimes following. L.A. County's northerly reaches had it worse.
"We saw a lot of trespassing and squatting, burglaries and vandalism," recalled Palmdale Deputy Sheriff Dave Jennings. "We had a record number of empty homes in the Antelope Valley."
Amid today's foreclosure surge, such crimes haven't occurred with the frequency some had feared.
One explanation might be preemptive efforts by local government and heightened vigilance by neighbors.
A recent bill by state Sen. President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) to ease the problem would've fined lenders $1,000 a day for failing to maintain unoccupied properties. The bill was narrowly defeated in the Senate on Jan. 30.
In Fontana, where foreclosures are swelling, police are contemplating an ordinance to force lenders and others responsible for vacated homes to maintain them.
"Places that start to get run down have an impact on more than the person next door," said Fontana Police Sgt. Jeff Decker. He added: "It affects the whole block."
Mindful of that, cities, homeowners groups and real estate agents are vowing to make vacated homes tougher to ransack. They want the grounds maintained so it appears that somebody is living on the property. They want windows and doors locked to deter breaks-ins and pools pumped dry to prevent accidental drownings or mosquito infestations.
Lancaster is being particularly proactive and now dispatches code-enforcement officers to trouble-prone houses. The officers board them up and take other safeguards, and then bill the financial institution that owns the structure, using a lien.
Neighboring Palmdale, as well as Simi Valley and other suburban cities, such as Rancho Cucamonga in the Inland Empire, also are attacking the problem with code crackdowns.