Jeff Humphrey

Bringing Zombie Homes Back to Life

Jeff Humphrey, Media Content Coordinator, 509.625.6308

Tuesday, November 7, 2017 at 3:39 p.m.

They are called “zombie homes”. Abandoned properties, rotting away in foreclosure and they are doing some scary things to our neighborhoods.

“They bring stolen property here, they trade stolen property here, trade drugs. They burn illegal fires. They damage the property and make it so it doesn’t have any value anymore,” said Neighborhood Resource Officer Doug Strosahl.

Right now more than a thousand properties here in Spokane are in various stages of foreclosure. Joe Eaton lives across the street from two of them.

“Transients in and out, folks living in a camper behind one of those two house. I have these two derelict homes, with abandoned cars in front of them, it doesn’t do anything for me or my property,” lamented Eaton.

When former owners walk away and lenders shy away from maintaining these homes, Code Enforcement officials step in and try to secure and preserve the properties.

While sheets of plywood make these places safer, they don’t bring new life to the neighborhood, or put the property back on the market.

That’s why the City of Spokane is now taking lenders to court to put the foreclosed homes into receivership.

 “A lot of times the titles on these properties are so clouded that a new owner can’t come in and buy it. The banks can’t foreclose on it, so receivership is really the only mechanism to return these abandoned properties to productive use,” said Matt Folsom, an assistant city attorney.

Folsom recently petitioned Superior Court about putting a north Lincoln Street home into receivership. Folsom won his case and the property is going back on the market.

“The thing we try to do is get it turned around as quickly as possible. Once I get appointed and get the cleaning crew or get is ready and make sure it’s safe. Make sure there are no hazards lying around and then and we usually list it as is. And, there’s a market and there’s a lot of competitive bidding,” said Tim Fischer, an attorney working as the City’s court-appointed receiver.

In fact, that same Lincoln Street home sold in less than week and no one is happier than nearby property owner Michael Wright.

“Now that this is being taken care of it definitely makes us feel a lot better. There are some really good people in that neighborhood who are going to be very pleased,” Wright said.

In another innovative approach to putting families back inside vacant, deteriorating homes, the City of Spokane is helping make the properties ready for the real estate market.

“So our hope is to step in with our grant funds and be able to build community. We want to take on that most difficult house, do the clean-up, remove the trash, secure the house, get rid of the crime and then do some selective demolition so we can spin this off to the for- profit entities,” explained Paul Trautman of the City’s Community Housing and Human Services department.

Of course most cities don’t want to be in the realty business or petitioning the court, but the foreclosure crisis is costing Spokane a lot of money every year.

Almost $2 million in delinquent taxes, another $1.5 million in police, fire and code enforcement duties caused by zombie homes.

City Councilwoman Amber Waldref warns abandoned foreclosed homes have reduced property values in Spokane by $94 million.

“So it’s just not impacting that house or the house next door. It could be the entire block,” Waldref said.

That’s why the City of Spokane is taking action. It’s the first in the state to require banks to register properties with the City when lenders start their foreclosure. Registration identifies who has the loan, title and allows for monitoring.

But City Halls across the state still lack some important tools when it comes to erasing these eyesores and at the same time, easing our low income housing crisis.

Waldref says the state needs new limits on the amount of time an abandoned home can sit in foreclosure.

“We’d also like, when that house is abandoned, a mechanism that would allow the lien holders to go in and secure and maintain that property so it doesn’t deteriorate into blight,” Folsom added.

Sometimes code enforcement officials are forced to secure abandoned homes leaving the City with hefty bills for building materials and hauling away debris.

But currently, state law only allows local governments to recover a maximum $2,000 in the form of a lien.

“Right now it’s a $2,000 cap. We’ve had properties in the last year where it’s taken upwards of $30,000 to abate the litter and rubbish on the property. So that’s why the priority lien amount should be whatever the city has to pay to abate it,” urged Folsom.

The elected officials serving cities across Washington did not create the foreclosure crisis but with our legislator’s help, the damage to our budgets, real estate values and neighborhoods could be repaired.

Waldref feels zombie homes and the problems they cause across the state are screaming for foreclosure reform.

“If you look at the totality of everything that could be accomplished with putting these homes back on the tax rolls, getting people living in them and being able to be part of safe, healthy neighborhoods... we will actually have more revenue back to our city and other cities across the state,” predicted Waldref.

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