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Vacant homes spread blight in suburb and city alike

Amid housing bust, foreclosures vex communities trying to hold dereliction and crime in check.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2008

No one home: Bernice Roberts and Joe Strotter board up their Atlanta property until it's rented.

Erik S. Lesser/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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In Mesa, Ariz., officials are trying to decide what to do about boarded-up McMansions that become party pads, trashed in raucous "raves" where invitations come by text message.

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In Atlanta, thieving from abandoned properties is so bad that police caught one man building a new house entirely of pilfered materials from empty homes.

Flint, Mich., has had to add firefighters and ladder trucks recently even though its population has declined. Up to 90 percent of fires start in homes where no one lives.

From Atlanta's urban core to leafy neighborhoods filled with chirping crickets in Charlotte, N.C., some 2.2 million homes are expected to go through foreclosure – and stand empty – by the time the mortgage meltdown ends, according to Global Insight, an economic research firm. As the housing dominoes fall far from Wall Street, growing urban "ghost towns" of vacant houses are resulting in a costly crush of weeds, trash, and dereliction on a scale unseen in American cities since the Great Depression, economists say.

As a $4 billion package to help municipalities deal with foreclosure-related blight hangs fire in the US Senate, US mayors met last weekend in Miami to vent about the scourge of abandoned homes. Cash-strapped cities are now scrambling – often using on-the-fly ingenuity – to rescue neighborhoods suddenly vulnerable to crime and stunned by millions of dollars in lost equity wrought by loose credit, opportunistic speculators, and predatory lending.

"Economists and folks from the lending industry will talk about it as a market correction, which doesn't adequately describe it," says Joseph Schilling, an urban affairs professor at Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute in Blacksburg. "This isn't just blight in the urban core; it's blight and abandonment in new suburban communities, and that's just never happened before."

In some Sun Belt cities like Orlando, Fla., and Charlotte, officials have tripled or quadrupled the number of liens they've placed on vacant homes in the past year, hoping to recoup at some point the money cities are spending to try to keep the properties from going to ruin. In California and Arizona, neighborhoods of half-million-dollar homes stand nearly empty, with some lonely residents using their former neighbors' yards as driving ranges. Meanwhile, long foreclosure lag times and uncooperative note-holders mean swimming pools go green, rain gutters fall off, weeds grow high, and ne'er-do-wells move in.