Dollar Homes program in San Bernardino

At 1064 N. D St. in San Bernardino, a home in the Dollar Homes program has had three owners. The city sold it for $6,000 to California Capital Properties, which then sold it to a buyer for $97,000. That buyer refinanced twice, ending up with a $280,500 loan. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The Times / February 6, 2009)

Jerry and Carol Ptacek bounced from one cramped apartment to another most of their adult lives, so they could hardly believe their luck when they were able to buy a San Bernardino house for the bargain price of $63,000.

Nine years later, they are renters again -- a testament to the failure of the federal government's Dollar Homes program.

Congress launched the program in 1998 to clear the Department of Housing and Urban Development's books of foreclosures and provide affordable housing. Local governments would buy the homes for $1, fix them up and resell them at a discount to poor families, who would get a chance to put down roots in the community.

At least that's how it was supposed to work.

A Times investigation has found that the Dollar Homes program has helped housing contractors and investors, but there is no evidence that it has provided any lasting benefit to people like the Ptaceks. The findings offer a cautionary tale as the Obama administration works to craft similar efforts to help communities ravaged by the housing slump.

"This is bad for taxpayers on both sides of the transaction," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

More than 2,300 homes have been sold by HUD for $1 each nationwide, with 326 in California. Nearly half of the homes in California were bought by companies or individuals who typically resold them at a much higher price. Only 15% were sold to nonprofit housing groups such as Habitat for Humanity, records show.

The city of San Bernardino bought more Dollar Homes -- 62 -- than any other city or county in the state. But San Bernardino officials could not provide The Times with any account of what happened to the homes after they were sold.

"They went back to the private market, and hopefully they were maintained and kept up," said Carey Jenkins, the housing director of San Bernardino's economic development agency, which oversees the city's Dollar Homes purchases. "And that was pretty much the end of our involvement."

Using county property tax and assessor records, federal bankruptcy files and real estate listings, The Times tracked every property sale to San Bernardino under the program since 2000. Among the findings:

* At least 43 of the 62 homes were sold to housing contractors and investors. Within months after purchase, nearly all were resold, and for an average of three times the original sales price.

* The homes continued to change hands frequently. Some homes have been bought and sold eight times in as many years, defeating the intent of the program to encourage buyers to put down roots and revive downtrodden neighborhoods.

* Instead of continuing to provide opportunities for low-income buyers, these homes have become priced beyond their reach, shooting up more than 450% in value from 2000 to 2008, based on sale prices. Moreover, there are no rules to ensure the homes remain affordable when they are resold.

* Nearly half of homes ended up with buyers who struggled with homeownership, missing property tax payments, defaulting on their loans, and in at least nine cases falling into foreclosure.

* The program goes unmonitored. Cities are by law required to give HUD detailed accounts of who bought the homes and for how much. But in at least 31 cases, San Bernardino provided inaccurate information, incorrectly listing either the buyer or the sale price, the review found.

HUD officials said that because the Dollar Homes program was mandated by Congress, it does not receive the same type of attention and follow-up as programs created by HUD itself.

"You have to keep in mind that this program wasn't created for success," said Vance Morris, the director of HUD's office of single-family asset management, which oversees the Dollar Homes program. "Sometimes you have programs created for success and others that were created to be compliant with the law. In this case, we are just complying with the law."

Morris also said that new rules were being written for all homes sold by HUD at a low cost, and should be implemented this year.

In 1997, Jerry Ptacek was unloading concrete off the back of a flatbed truck when he lost his balance and fell, wrenching his back and hips. Despite several surgeries, he has walked with a cane ever since. His disability payments and a few odd jobs pay the bills. His wife, Carol, also has been declared permanently disabled after years of struggling with depression.