Abandoned at left to rot

After foreclosure, propertiesbecome neighborhood eyesores

08/14/2007 12:00 AM

08/14/2007 9:01 AM

There once were big plans for the property at 905 Brady Ave.

In one of Modesto's most prestigious neighborhoods, the six-bedroom house on nearly one acre sold for $1.75 million less than two years ago.

The grand two-story home, built in 1941, was moved to one corner of the property, and the parcel was supposed to be split into four lots. The old house was to be restored, and three new homes were to be built.

"The place is an absolute mess now," said Gladys Ahart, who routinely takes walks through the neighborhood. "I can't believe the place deteriorated like that so quickly. There's no excuse for not cutting down those weeds."

All remodeling work stopped months ago, and the rented fence that once protected the home from trespassers is gone.

That's because the property has been foreclosed on and repossessed by out-of-state lenders.

It's not the only one: More than 2,500 homes have been repossessed by lenders since January in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

"It's becoming a pretty substantial problem," said Rafael Rodriguez, supervisor for Modesto's Neighborhood Preservation Unit.

Rodriguez said many abandoned properties pose fire, safety and health hazards as weeds grow, trees die and untreated pools become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests. Unsecured vacant homes also attract vandals and vagrants.

After foreclosure, Rodriguez said it is extremely difficult to track down the legal owners and convince them to maintain the property.

"We can't seem to get even to first base with some banks," said Rodriguez, recalling the runaround his staff often gets when trying to contact the responsible parties. "They're not being good neighbors."

The Brady home, for example, was sold at a trustee sale May 21 for the price of its unpaid debt, nearly $1.1 million. Its title went to "U.S. Bank National Association, as trustee for CSFB A RMT 05-12."

When contacted by The Bee last week, an e-mail from Teri Charest of U.S. Bank said the Brady "property is part of a trust for which U.S. Bank is a trustee, which means we act on behalf of the trust and our name is on the assets, but it is the role of the servicer (we are not the servicer) to take care of the property while it is in foreclosure."

After further inquires about the poor condition of the Brady property, Charest reported that Countrywide Financial is responsible for maintaining it.

"Our trust group was in touch with them, and Countrywide has assured us that this particular property will be checked into and remediation of any problems will happen immediately," Charest said.

Within a couple of days of The Bee's inquiries, Countrywide had sent a crew to the Brady property. It took workers two days to chop down the weeds and remove most of the debris. The old house, which remains unsecured, sits in disrepair on its new foundation.

But what about all the other abandoned eyesores in the Northern San Joaquin Valley?

A foreclosed home on Edsel Avenue in Modesto has neighbor Bob Smink concerned about the dead grass and boxes of junk left behind. He fears vandals will be attracted to the empty house, which sold at a public auction April 16 to FV-I Inc.

"I'm surprised somebody hasn't gone in and set it afire," said Smink, who reported the potential danger to the Neighborhood Preservation Unit.

Rodriguez said Modesto's budget doesn't include money to hire people to maintain vacant properties, so he issues abatement notices and threatens fines to try to convince owners to do their own cleanup.

Stanislaus County is more aggressive about enforcing property maintenance codes in unincorporated areas.

"My staff and I are like pit bulls," said Michael Newton, Stanislaus County's code enforcement manager. If the property owners don't clean up after being notified, Newton said, the county does it for them.

Owners are then sent the bill, he said, and a lien is placed on the property's title to make sure the county is repaid before the land can be sold.

Newton agreed that tracking down lenders of foreclosed property is "just a stinking nightmare."

"Many of these banks sell (repossessed properties) to other banks who sell them to other banks," he said. "You have to be tenacious to find them."

Scott Gill said he wishes someone could get owners of the longvacant house on Radnor Way in Modesto to clean it up. That property was foreclosed on May 10 by Washington Mutual Bank.

"The yard hasn't been watered since the last rain, and the pool hasn't been treated since last summer. It looks like a stagnant brown pond," said Gill, who lives nearby. He's concerned about mosquitoes breeding there.

Eddie Enrique said he's worried about the West Nile virus being spread by mosquitoes in the "green pool" next to his home on Wylie Drive.

"It's a health hazard and an eyesore," Enrique said of the poorly maintained yard that borders his property. "This is getting ridiculous. This is an upscale neighborhood."

Even new subdivisions are sprinkled with abandoned homes, including the master-planned communities of Village I in Modesto, Crossroads in Riverbank and Bridle Ridge in Oakdale.

"Every time I take a walk, I'm deluged with big beautiful homes with brown landscape and dying trees. It's upsetting to say the least," said Mike Qualters, who bought a new home in Crossroads. "There are four or five homes here that look like they were in World War II and lost."

Village I resident Wilta Graham, who bought her new home three years ago, said some houses nearby pose "an absolute fire hazard with dead weeds at least two or three feet high."

"There's at least three houses right together with dead grass," Graham said. "It's an eyesore."

Oakdale officials also hear complaints about recently built homes in Bridle Ridge not being maintained.

"The city doesn't have the money or the personnel (to do the cleanup). We'd have to hire a lawn crew," said Oakdale code enforcement officer Rita Taylor.

"What a lot of neighbors have started doing is that when they mow their own lawn, they mow their neighbor's lawn, too. That's the easiest way to keep up the look of the neighborhood."

That's not an option for some elderly residents, however, who have watched their neighborhoods become blighted with empty houses.

Michelle Nicholes moved into her Rouse Avenue home nearly 50 years ago. At night, she said she fears vagrants who go into an empty house nearby.

"I'm afraid of fire," said Nicholes, noting the dead weeds that surround the home. "On the Fourth of July, I stayed up until 1 a.m. I'm afraid for my house."

Joyce Vigus said she also is frightened of fire since a home behind hers, on Pimlico Drive in Modesto, was vacated.

"It's just as dry as a bone, and the weeds are almost up to your head," Vigus said. "If it catches fire, the whole place is going to go up, with my fence and the back of my house, too."

She said the trash left in the back yard poses a health hazard. "I have seen rats walking along the fence."

Three empty houses on Scott Avenue in Modesto concern neighbor L.C. Robinson.

"It's been something horrendous around here," Robinson said. "The homeless and teenagers started moving in, and they're just demolishing them."

An empty rental home on Del Monte Avenue in Modesto upsets neighbor Patricia Kopf because "it's unkept and unsightly."

She said she fears the home's large Modesto ash trees are dying from neglect.

"Those trees are old, precious and a beautiful part of the neighborhood. They're just defenseless without any water," said Kopf, noting that concerned neighbors have started watering the trees because the rental home's owner doesn't.

Rodriguez said he's been meeting with Modesto's city attorney to discuss ways to file actions against property owners who don't maintain their property.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez said, he is encouraging Modesto residents to tell the Neighborhood Preservation Unit about every vacant home in the city, espe-cially those with pools.

He said he's making a master list in an attempt to "get in front of this problem."

Rodriguez can be reached at 577-5250 or npu@modestogov.com. Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jnsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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