'Zombie' homes get facelift after Center report

Wells Fargo makes repairs to properties stuck in limbo in St. Petersburg

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A "No Trespassing" sign is shown on a house in Lake Worth, Fla, in March of 2012. Tens of thousands of homes in the state sit empty after a financial institution begins the foreclosure process.

Wilfredo Lee/AP

Wells Fargo & Co. has been improving dozens of abandoned properties in St. Petersburg, Florida, that had fallen into disrepair after the lender foreclosed on loans tied to the homes.

The San Francisco-based bank has been working with city officials to fix up the ailing properties after a Center for Public Integrity report in September showed how the derelict homes have hurt neighborhoods in some hard-hit cities.

“We have received quite a bit of attention from Wells Fargo and they have been improving the priority list of properties we sent to them,” said Mike Dove, St. Petersburg’s neighborhood affairs administrator, who has been mapping abandoned, foreclosed homes in his city by lender in an effort to get the banks’ help with upkeep.

Dove said Wells officials contacted him the day after the Center report was published on Sept. 15.

The Center story showed how “zombie” homes — vacant homes that are stuck in some state of foreclosure for months or even years — can fall into disrepair because homeowners often leave after receiving foreclosure notices. But the actual foreclosure cases can take years to complete. The empty homes are often neglected by the banks until they regain title, and they pull down the value of other homes in their neighborhoods.

Florida was especially hard hit when the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent economic slowdown led to declines in home values. Millions of homes went into foreclosure.   

Today, six years after the peak of the crisis, there are 35,913 “zombie” homes in the state, out of a total of 162,644 properties in some stage of foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate industry market research firm.

The Tampa-St. Petersburg area stands out, with 7,509 abandoned homes out of 26,810 properties in foreclosure. Dove said in September that 800 properties within St. Petersburg’s city limits listed Wells Fargo as the lender or mortgage servicer. Of those, 84 were unoccupied and 54 were listed as “problem properties.”

Once the bank contacted Dove in September, things began to happen quickly. By November, the city had sent a Wells Fargo representative assigned to the issue a list of properties that were in disrepair. By last month, the company had corrected the problems on 19 homes and was working on another 11. The city had already demolished two homes and another is now occupied. A handful more are boarded up with no exterior violations, which city officials consider to be stable and secure.

As of now, Wells has addressed the problems in more than 64 percent of those homes, city officials said.

Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda said the company has addressed problems at the properties in St. Petersburg where it had legal authority to do so.  He said some were occupied and others were sold.

Wells actions are significant in a city like St. Petersburg, which has been struggling to prevent abandoned homes from spreading blight. When homeowners and banks walk away from a property, the city is left with the responsibility for the home. Sometimes it wants to fix it up and sell, sometimes it wants to tear it down. But St. Petersburg doesn’t have the resources to deal with all the vacant homes.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in a statement said he was pleased with the bank’s actions and that the city looks forward to “a continuing relationship to eliminate the blighting impact these properties can have on neighborhoods if they are not maintained."

Wells Fargo spokesman Tom Goyda said in September that the company’s policy is to maintain vacant properties in foreclosure even before it gains full ownership. He said the company mows lawns, removes debris, winterizes the home and ensures they are secure. Still, some homes end up being missed.

Dove says he will now try to get the attention of the other banks that are the lenders for other abandoned homes in St. Pete. “I want to hold these financial institutions accountable."

His legal options may be limited. Many hard-hit cities have already tried to find ways to hold banks accountable for abandoned properties for which they hold a mortgage.

Baltimore and Memphis, Tennessee, succeeded in obtaining settlements from Wells Fargo for alleged predatory lending that led to abandoned homes, but a similar effort in Birmingham, Alabama, failed, according to Kathleen Engel, a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston who has written about cities’ legal efforts.

Cleveland sued several banks, alleging they caused a public nuisance in one case and accusing them of racketeering in another. The cases were dismissed.

“Cities have suffered unique injuries as a result of exploitative and illegal lending,” Engel wrote in the Fordham Urban Law Journal City Square. “Thus far the financial institutions have not had to internalize the harm they caused in Cleveland, Birmingham and other municipalities.”

Public pressure and bad publicity may be stronger weapons.

Jared Bennett contributed to this story.

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