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The Case for Fast-Tracking Foreclosures of Vacant Properties

MAR 14, 2014 9:19am ET
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Still one of the hottest topics in the default servicing industry today is the call by many field services providers for fast-tracking the foreclosure process on vacant, abandoned residential properties.

This subject is controversial because today any mention of “foreclosure,” especially when combined with the phrase, “fast-tracking," evokes negative feelings. But action by municipalities and states to deal with the growing problems associated with vacant, abandoned properties should not be held hostage to terminology.

In Ohio, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, in addition to minimizing neighborhood blight, by fast-tracking the foreclosure process mortgage lenders could save between $24 million and $129 million a year.

In addition, the savings would potentially be greater for communities and government entities that would avoid having to deal with abandoned properties on a protracted basis, which pulls down local property values and creates an unnecessary backlog in the court system. Countless neighborhoods have been negatively impacted over the past several years by the blight and other consequences that accompany increased abandonment of residential real estate properties, especially in many inner cities. This situation needs resolution to help communities rebuild and protect property values.

The Cleveland Fed recently released a report on how fast-tracking foreclosures on vacant, abandoned properties could benefit both Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In an article published recently in the Miami Herald, Martha Brannigan writes that the Miami-Dade Circuit Court, which is clogged with foreclosure cases, many which date back as far as 2009, has gotten tougher on seeing cases pushed through the system. Miami-Dade remains an epicenter of foreclosures not only in Florida but across the country. According to RealtyTrac, one in every 201 homes in Miami-Dade received some kind of foreclosure filing last November. That is in stark contrast to the national average of one in 728. The cost savings of reducing the unnecessarily-prolonged foreclosure process on vacant, abandoned properties would be staggering.

Field service providers like my company are the eyes and ears for our lender/servicer/investor clients out in communities across America. We typically find out first if homes with mortgages in default are occupied or vacant. And in what condition they are. Because field services providers are responsible for inspecting, securing and preserving millions of properties across the country, we know intimately the impact that vacant, neglected properties have on neighborhoods and local economies. Our collective voices have risen recently and are not only being heard, but listened to by municipalities and states that want to find resolution to this sensitive and complicated issue.

It is understandable that lenders and servicers, as well as borrowers, would be very sensitive to the notion of “fast-tracking” the foreclosure process on any of their nonperforming real estate assets. This is especially true since the federal government took so many steps to try to help prevent foreclosures, such as HAMP, HAFA and other foreclosure alternative programs, including moratoria, encouraging lenders and servicers to avert foreclosure if at all possible. But, while foreclosing on occupied properties should be avoided if at all possible under the proper circumstances, there can be a case made for blight abatement legislation to help accelerate foreclosure on certifiably vacant properties.

During a recent session, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill that could dramatically reduce the timeline on the foreclosure process for abandoned properties from the more than two years it can often take today to as little as 90 to 100 days. Lenders would also be required to pay additional fees to file foreclosure actions which will ostensibly be used to fund homeowner counseling and foreclosure prevention efforts, as well as help offset municipalities’ costs to secure and maintain neglected buildings.

Another state that must be listening to field service providers and others in the mortgage servicing industry is New Jersey. Senate Bill 2156 is a proposed piece of legislation headed to that state’s Assembly that would allow courts to grant summary foreclosure action when a subject property is certified vacant. As in other judicial foreclosure states, especially New York, moving abandoned properties through the foreclosure process is quite protracted. This new bill in New Jersey, if passed by the Assembly and signed by Governor Christie, would require that lenders present in court “clear and convincing evidence” that the subject property is in fact vacant and abandoned. With that evidence accepted, the lender would be allowed to fast-track the foreclosure process.

Few would dispute, I believe, that reasonable effort should be made to try to keep people in their homes under the right and just circumstances. It is becoming increasingly clear as well that fast-tracking the foreclosure process on vacant, abandoned properties can make good common sense, not just for mortgage lenders, but more importantly for residents of countless neighborhoods, their municipalities, states, and our nation.

Lynn Effinger is the executive vice president of business development for ZVN Properties, Inc., a national provider of field services based in Ohio.

Comments (3)
Lynn is absolutely right!! Lynn, I hope your enjoying your position with ZVN Properties. It has been several years since I have seen you. James

PS How is your book doing?
Posted by JAMES B | Friday, March 14 2014 at 5:54PM ET
The flip side to this is that many lenders are going through the foreclosure process but not taking the final step of going to Sheriff Sale. This results in a "zombie mortgage" where the old owner is still technically liable for the real estate taxes and upkeep, but has been evicted from his home. Lenders are taking this route so they don't become the owners and thus responsible for community standards of upkeep, trespass liability, and taxes due at closing into their name. Why should they be granted "fast-track" when they aren't cleaning up the messes they have already made?
Posted by | Saturday, March 15 2014 at 8:58AM ET
Wayne. Maybe I missed something but if someone is evicted from their home, the Bank has already gone through Sheriff Sale. Can you provide examples of how an eviction occurs before the sheriff sale. What is happening more often are people living in the homes for years without payment and the Banks being halted from foreclosing. Lynn's article refers to those properties that are vacant and need to move forward to getting a homeowner in it to maintain it and help the neighborhoods from decline. If there is a chance that a Borrower can save their home with one of the Gov't programs, then by all means it should be done but the abandoned houses need to be looked at differently because they are not doing anyone any good by sitting there. Whats needed is not a blanket, one size fits all, policy but a process to move those that are obvious through the ultimate outcome and protect the neighborhood values.
Posted by | Monday, March 17 2014 at 3:38PM ET
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