Empty Houses and Their Effect on Neighboring Homes

Deborah Boza-Valledor's picture

RISMEDIA, By Jamie Smith Hopkinsa(MCT)aThe abandoned rowhouse next door to Wendy and Brian Malaney has been a nightmare of a neighbor. The rowhouseas roofing material blew off, and water seeped through the Malaneysa adjoining walls. Later the pipes burst in the neighboring property, flooding their basement. The air they and their two young daughters breathe is now heavy with the noxious stink of mold.

The Malaneys say they have no way to cover the thousands of dollars needed to repair their own home. The vacant propertyas owner has not stepped forward to fix the damage. Neither has the bank, which decided against foreclosing onaand taking possession ofathe property. The Malaneys say insurance hasnat covered the cost of remediationaand now they are stuck.

aWe have nothing without this house,a said Wendy Malaney, who lives in Baltimoreas Wilson Park neighborhood. She said the damage has left her family with two choices: aliving on the streets or waiting to get seriously ill.a

After decades of population and job loss, Baltimore had 22 abandoned buildings for every 1,000 people at the end of the 1990s, according to a survey of larger cities done for the Brookings Institution. Only Philadelphia had a higher share at the time. Many of the other cities reported minimal problems.

Now, though, communities across the country are wrestling with mounting abandonment as the foreclosure crisis drags on. More homes are sitting empty. More neighbors are feeling the effects. And they canat necessarily appeal to the mortgage holder for help if the vacant properties deteriorate.

Repair work similar to what the city undertook in Wilson Park would eat up nearly $100 million if crews were sent to all 5,000 vacant properties located in largely occupied areas, and officials warn that the budget doesnat allow it. aBut we do it on a case-by-case basis,a said Michael Braverman, deputy housing commissioner in Baltimore.

Abandoned buildings are a perennial problem in Baltimoreaa city where many residents share connecting walls. Nearly one-third of the cityas 16,000 uninhabitable properties are near occupied homes, city officials say. And a key part of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blakeas new plan to attack vacancies is ratcheting up code enforcement on blocks where many residents still live, issuing fines more quickly.

But as the Malaneys discovered, months of effort by code enforcers and multiple citations sometimes bring no results. The city went one step further on their block this month, spending $18,500 to replace the vacant homeas roof and remove its mold-infested drywall, insulation and carpet to try to prevent more damage to the Malaneysa property a year and a half after their woes began.

Last fiscal year, the city spent about $435,000 to stabilize 13 abandoned homes to safeguard neighboring residents, and about $450,000 to partially demolish 137 homes with major structural problems.

Baltimoreas count of abandoned buildings has remained fairly stable at 16,000 in recent years, despite rising foreclosures, Braverman said. But a home doesnat get on the list until the city determines that it is not only vacant, but also uninhabitable. And it can take time for structural problems to set in. So the number of abandonments could grow. Lenders started foreclosure proceedings on more than 6,200 Baltimore homes last year, according to the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance. Some homes have since been sold. Others are sitting empty, either in foreclosure limbo or in a bankas inventory.

Joe Schilling, professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, said some homes in weak markets are stuck in a aforeclosure limboaawith the owner gone and the bank deciding that it doesnat want to take the property back at auction because it wouldnat be worth it. aIt seems thereas an increasing number of what Iad call bank walkaways,a Schilling said. aThey are making an economic decision by not foreclosing on the property.a

Abandonment is especially challenging in a city of rowhouses, said Dan Kildee, president of the Center for Community Progress, a athink and do tanka that focuses on vacancy issues. aThe physical damage that can occur when you have shared walls is pretty obvious,a he said.

Water that got into the Malaneysa home via the rowhouse next door damaged ceilings and walls. It also made the property a breeding ground for mold. The air filters the Malaneys installed to try to protect their daughters are pitch-black.

Wendy Malaney thinks it would cost $10,000-$15,000 to fix their homeas structural damage and remove the mold. Her husband, Brian, makes about $19,000 a year as an electricianas helper and chimney sweep, so the expense would be more than they could hope to handle themselves, the couple said.

The Malaneysa problems began in February 2009 when a windstorm ripped off roofing material from the rowhome next door, leaving only exposed plywood, which let in rain. Then in January, the pipes next door burst, breaking a hole in the shared wall and submerging the Malaneysa basement in three and a half feet of water.

Shonny S. Ogunfiditimi, who is listed in property records as owner of the neighboring home, could not be reached for comment. She filed for bankruptcy protection in December.

The Malaneysa own insurer paid $1,300 after the initial problem with the roof but declined further claims, they said. A claims representative suggested in a letter that they seek city help to get the neighboring property fixed.

City officials tried citations, fines and legal action against the real estate investor. According to court records, Ogunfiditimi received probation before judgment on a charge of failing to properly register the property.

But the property wasnat fixed. So the city agreed to send a work crew. Wendy Malaney said sheas grateful the city stepped in. The work that was done should cut down on additional water damage, she said. But it doesnat solve her familyas problem. aThe bottom line is, whoas going to fix my house?a she said.

(c) 2010, The Baltimore Sun.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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