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Blight moves in after foreclosures
By 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.
"Now, all seven technicians and the field supervisor spend a lot of their time on them."
Worried that there are many green pools they don't know about, officials hired an aerial survey company this month. The surveyors identified 1,000 pools as "green," "half-empty," "murky" or "questionable."
Michael McKenna and Israel Del Pino can't figure out what to do about the neighbor's pool.
Property records show that the 3,200-square-foot house was sold in March for $860,000 to a man identified on property records as Pat Cheamsreesakul, who financed the entire sum with two loans. He filled the garage with his stuff but never moved in.
He apparently never paid the mortgage either, because by June 15 he was delinquent $19,050, records show, and his lender, GMAC Mortgage, had started foreclosure proceedings. GMAC declined to comment. Cheamsreesakul's whereabouts could not be determined.
In early July, the neighbors contacted the L.A. County Health Department about the pool, and the agency promptly sent out someone to look. He put a note on the front door asking the owner to contact the authorities.
"There is no owner," McKenna told the inspector. Or, at least, none that he could find.
The inspector also said he would refer the matter to the city Department of Building and Safety.
Weeks went by. Algae and bacteria began to grow in the pool, which turned green. Mosquitoes laid eggs, which hatched into larvae. If those critters fed on a bird infected with West Nile, they could transmit the disease.
McKenna took matters into his own hands, refilling the pool, turning on the filter and dumping in gallons of bleach and chlorine.
A few days later, a building inspector turned up. McKenna led him back through the gate to the pool. The inspector said he didn't see any evidence of mosquitoes, according to McKenna, and said he couldn't do anything about the house itself, because it was still secure from vandals.
Del Pino, meanwhile, called the local vector-control agency. Technicians arrived immediately, ready to treat the pool. But because McKenna had already treated it, there wasn't much to do. They said their policy was not to drain pools.
"People keep coming out, and I guess they're doing their job, but no one is really addressing the problem," McKenna said.
Los Angeles building department officials said inspectors were supposed to check out vacant properties within three working days. They had no explanation why it took three weeks.
But they also said the city had limited ability to help.
"Unless the house is open and vacant, and starting to collect trash and debris, there's nothing we can do," said Frank Bush, chief inspector for the L.A. Building and Safety Department's Code Enforcement Bureau.
As for the pool, "you can't drain for the sake of draining," said department spokesman Bob Steinbach. "It's the owner's responsibility."
The only solution, Del Pino said, is for the house to be sold to someone who will take care of it. But that, he feared, was going to take a long time.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
What to do if your street is blighted by an abandoned home?
Experts suggest contacting the real estate agent first. When homes are foreclosed, they often revert to the lender, which arranges for real estate brokers to maintain the properties pending a sale.
The broker, whose name should be posted on the house, has an incentive to keep the place presentable because it's less likely to sell if it becomes seedy.
If you suspect squatters, call the police immediately. If squatters convincingly assert residency, the police will generally say it's a civil matter requiring an eviction.
After the wave of foreclosures in the 1990s produced an abundance of abandoned buildings that became havens for gangs and criminals, the city of Los Angeles set up a nuisance abatement program. Owners of properties that are open to trespass are initially warned. If that doesn't produce results, the property can be fenced and barricaded by the city, which will also initiate legal action.
Property violations in Los Angeles can be reported by calling (888) LA4-BUILD, or (888) 524-28453, or by using the department website at www.ladbs.org.
If you live outside L.A., contact your local city hall or your county government.
Mosquitoes, because they can transmit the West Nile virus, are urgent health matters. Neighbors who see neglected pools or standing water of any sort should immediately contact the local mosquito control agency by going to www.westnile.ca.gov or calling (877) WNV-BIRD, or (877) 968-2473.
Technicians will treat the water, returning as often as necessary until the West Nile season ends in the late fall.
Times reporting by David Streitfeld