Left Behind: Bank ‘walkaways’ leave empty, decaying houses in Trumbull communities (Tribune Chronicle)

When Betty J. Anderson moved into her home at 987 Highland Ave. eight years ago, the three houses next door to her home were abandoned.

One has since been torn down. There was a fire in another, but the house still stands with melted aluminum siding.

And people and raccoons have been in and out of the third property, she said.

“The city should do something about these,” Anderson said. “People should not have to sit in their yards and watch these houses fall into increasingly worse conditions.”

At least one of the homes, 973 Highland Ave., is a bank ”walkaway.”

Bank walkaways occur when banks begin foreclosure procedures, homeowners move out before they are forced to move by the court procedures, but then, for unknown reasons, the bank fails to complete the foreclosure.

The homes deteriorate because the banks, which do not own the properties because foreclosures were never completed, do not take over maintenance.

Ragged and unkept bushes, as well as high lawns, surround the two empty house next to Anderson’s home.

“People walk through these properties all of the time,” she said. “There was one time that some kids walking by these home said that someone was trying to lure them into their car. He sped off when I yelled, asking them what was wrong. I could not see what was happening because the bushes are so high.”

Community leaders and nonprofit organizations are concerned that these bank walkaways are helping to speed the decline of neighborhoods across the city and county. A community meeting was held last month to discuss the practice and its impact.

About 40 percent of Trumbull County’s bank walkaways – 141 – are in Warren, according to Sam Lamancusa, county treasurer and the president of the Trumbull County Land Bank.

From 2009 through 2012, there were a total of 347 bank walkaways in Trumbull county, according to a study conducted by George Piscsalko, planning and zoning coordinator of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership.

Weathersfield and Niles are tied with having the second-highest number, with 30 each. Champion has 22; and Hubbard and Liberty 17 each.

“We began looking at this because of the Ohio Forward grant being provided by the attorney general’s office was coming up and we wanted to know if some of the properties might be eligible to be torn down,” Piscsalko said.

During the research, TNP officials learned that Cuyahoga County Land Bank obtained a settlement with a large bank because it was not taking care of its properties, so they wanted to find out the number of abandoned bank-owned properties in Trumbull to determine whether it would be worth pursuing a similar type of settlement.

Under a typical bank walkaway, the mortgage lender decides not to foreclose on a defaulted mortgage or complete the foreclosure process after it had already begun. As a result, homes are left in a state of limbo. The houses may be vacant and dilapidated, with the ownership and future of the house remaining unclear.

When a home is not foreclosed on, the borrower remains legally responsible for taxes, maintenance and demolition costs if the house is condemned. But with no one taking responsibility for the property, the community often is left with the costs. The loss of property taxes, in turn, affects cities and schools that receive tax revenue.

“Average citizens see the problem of bank walkaways all of the time,” said Matt Martin of Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership. “Abandoned properties provide health and safety risks for those living around them, are neighborhood eyesores and lower the values of surrounding properties.”

Warren Mayor Doug Franklin said his administration has spoken to area legislators about statewide legislation to make it more difficult to walk away from foreclosure actions once begun.

“Banks have to be held more accountable,” Franklin said. ”Generally, it is not our local banks that are the problem.”

Franklin added that people facing foreclosure do not have to leave until the foreclosure is legally completed and the sheriff is ready to move them out.

“Remaining in the home will give them time to work with their bank to come up with a solution other than foreclosure,” he said. “Also, an occupied house that is not deteriorating is easier to sell.”

Niles Mayor Ralph Infante said the community has significantly fewer of bank walkaways because its housing inspector stays on top of homes that are deteriorating or are abandoned.

“We try to immediately contact the property’s owners,” Infante said. “If we have to cut the grass or board up the properties, we will place a lien on the property, so when it is sold we will get our investment back.”

Zachariah Germaniuk, who has studied bank walkaways in Cuyahoga County, said this is a product of the housing crisis that ballooned in 2008.

“Banks, for years, worked in a largely unregulated environment that allowed some to provide loans to people whose credit worthiness typically would not have allowed them to obtain home loans, creating the subprime market and eventually mortgage-backed securities,” Germaniuk said.

”When a high number of these people defaulted on their loans, the banks began foreclosing and found that there was not enough equity in the homes that allowed the banks to recover their funds.”

Germaniuk, a former Warren resident, said the majority of the bank walkaways in Warren are concentrated in the area of South and Cherry avenues and around Washington and Belmont streets.

“There is no one easy answer to solve this problem,” Germaniuk said. “It will take private, nonprofit and governments working together.”

Because Warren is a relatively small city and the county already has a landbank, Martin agreed it has an opportunity to get ahead of the problem.

“We do not have the organizational hurdles that some larger communities have,” he said. “Working with the county landbank, we can convince the banks and other lien holders to eliminate the debt on the loans, so the properties can be sold.”

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