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ABANDONED HOMES BECOMING SCOURGE OF NEIGHBORHOODS VACANT: PALMDALE LAW CRACKS DOWN ON NEGLECT OF PROPERTIES.

Byline: Karen Maeshiro

Staff Writer

PALMDALE -- With brown lawns and a backyard swimming pool that resembled a cesspool, foreclosed homes were so rundown in one local cul-de-sac that residents sprang into action to clean up after their former neighbors.

Stung by the statewide mortgage crisis, nearly 30 percent of the 14 homes in Scranton Court are in foreclosure -- and four of those are vacant.

With foreclosures rising in Palmdale -- as well as the region -- the city recently passed an ordinance designed to prevent foreclosed homes from deteriorating and becoming safety hazards or magnets for crime.

"The lawns are dead, there's trash all over, they left animals, it's pitiful," Joan Guyer told the Palmdale City Council recently before some of the problems were cleaned up.

"There's one across the street, they can't even find the owners. ... There's got to be something done with these abandoned properties."

The new regulations were passed in part to reduce the $10,000 to $12,000 the city is paying average each month to drain pools at abandoned homes and to secure vacant properties.

The new ordinance, which took effect this month, requires owners, banks and other lenders to register vacant and abandoned homes in foreclosure with the city and to secure and maintain them.

Fines up to $2,500

The registration fee is $100, and those violating the ordinance could be fined up to $2,500 for repeated violations. It's modeled after a first-in-the-nation effort in Chula Vista near San Diego.

The ordinance comes as the real estate downturn has hit hard in the Antelope Valley. Last year, Lancaster and Palmdale recorded 2,382 foreclosures -- up from just 274 the previous year, according to the most recent figures from the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance.

A total of 6,372 notices of default were issued to homeowners last year, up from 2,394 the prior year.

While the number of foreclosures is lower than the 3,725 reported in 1997, a foreclosure seminar in Lancaster last month drew 350 people.

Some of those who attended reported being behind in mortgage payments because of a loss of a spouse, illness, divorce or high gas and food prices.

"Unfortunately, so many people live on the edge," Realtor Greg Galli said. "All it takes is a hiccup and it tips them over."

And during the foreclosure process, which can take up to a year, city officials have a hard time finding anyone to maintain the property, Palmdale officials said.

The owners often vanish or won't spend money on property they're losing, while banks often claim they have no duty to take over until the houses are in their hands.

"The ordinance is aimed at everyone who has a financial interest in the property," Assistant City Attorney Judy Skousen said.

"The original owner, as long as his name is on the original title, yes, he's responsible, but so many times we can't find the original owners."

Emotional burden

During the foreclosure seminar, some Palmdale homeowners disagreed with the new law -- including Sal Castellanos, an operational officer for a landscaping company, who said it's a financial and emotional burden.

"It would be hard to do maintenance on a house, like gardening, for the aesthetic look of the house. I can't see myself going back there to take care of something that I lost," he said.

"I'm responsible until the day I leave. When I leave, that's the end."

Chula Vista officials said mortgage lenders at first opposed the city ordinance but have become more agreeable after fines were levied, said Doug Leeper, code enforcement manager.

Since enacting it in October, Chula Vista has issued $90,000 in fines, of which about 15 percent has been paid, Leeper said.

Liens have been placed on two houses for nonpayment. More than 100 homes have been registered.

Guyer, a bookkeeper, had lived for a dozen years on Scranton Court before moving last year to another house in Palmdale that she and her family built.

She had put her Scranton Court house up for sale but took it off the market after it didn't sell. These days, she checks on her property weekly and keeps the lawn mowed.

"I think it's a good ordinance. The owners of the deed should be responsible for maintaining their property," she said.

"If it looks like it's not maintained, people are going to break in, plus it detracts from the neighborhood."

karen.maeshiro(at)dailynews.com

661-476-4586
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:ST
Date:Mar 7, 2008
Words:739
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