Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
The house across the street from Bianca Sanchez in Southwest Albuquerque has been vacant for about five years. The people who lived there, she said, “just disappeared overnight.”
Since then, she said, thieves have broken into the vacant home and stolen copper piping, appliances and the gas meter. Sanchez, who has been in her home for 10 years, calls police when she notices activity at the vacant house at night.
“We see flashlights and candles and don’t know who’s in there,” she said.
Johnny Lopez lives next to the vacant house. He bought his home eight months ago and has called police numerous times because of people breaking in through the plywood-covered windows at the house next door. His own car was recently vandalized in his driveway and he’s afraid someone will break into his home.
Lopez is thinking of trying to sell.
“They’re nice houses in the neighborhood,” he said. “But it’s just too wild.”
Sanchez and Lopez have plenty of company, with an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 abandoned homes in the city at any given time. There are an estimated 700 more in Rio Rancho.
Residents across the metropolitan area can tell of hearing trucks being loaded at night, and waking up the next morning to find neighbors gone and their home vacant.
It can then take months, even years, for a “For Sale” sign to go up at the vacant residence. In between, all kinds of not-so-good things can come about: weeds, litter, graffiti, squatters, drug activity, and theft of appliances, plumbing fixtures and copper, said Albuquerque’s code compliance manager Brennon Williams.
“We feel unsafe,” said Lopez, who lives next to the boarded-up house in a newer subdivision near Old Coors and Gonzales SW.
Foreclosed properties in Albuquerque run the gamut, from high-dollar custom homes in tony areas in far Northeast Albuquerque and Los Ranchos, to manufactured homes and a North Valley residence that was the scene of a murder-suicide.
In Rio Rancho, the local Multiple Listing Service website recently had listings for a 4,676-foot home with a pool for $555,000 and a two-bedroom condo for $57,500.
Owners walk away
During the Great Recession, many homes were abandoned when the homeowners got notice of foreclosure. With a mortgage in excess of equity, many simply pulled up stakes and drove away, leaving the home to the lender.
Now, the motivating factor is more likely to be a personal crisis but the net effect is the same.
The length of time a house sits vacant affects the quality of life for neighbors, said Albuquerque City Councilor Klarissa Peña, whose Southwest Albuquerque district is in an area of the city with the highest foreclosure rate.
Realtor Talia Freedman of Signature Southwest Properties said it’s hard to quantify how having foreclosed homes in a neighborhood affects a home’s value.
“But we know that lots of vacant houses on a street make a house hard to sell,” she said.
The continued presence of abandoned and often deteriorating houses in Rio Rancho – one councilor recently estimated there are more than 700 in the city – prompted councilors there to ask the city attorney if the city’s nuisance abatement ordinance could be made more effective.
Councilors spent half of a monthly work session this summer discussing how to find a practical, cost-effective way to combat the problem.
Currently, the city can petition the District Court for an inspection order, but it is a monthslong process.
Rio Rancho City Councilor Lonnie Clayton talked about an abandoned home on his street, where vandals painted an obscene image on the garage door. He wants the city to have the ability to compel whoever is responsible for the empty homes to maintain them.
Rio Rancho passed an ordinance in 2011 requiring financial institutions that own foreclosed homes to maintain them, but councilors who discussed the issue this summer said they want legislation with more teeth.
An Albuquerque city ordinance passed in 2004 requires owners of homes that are vacant for 90 days or more and aren’t listed with a real estate agent to register them with the city. Williams estimated the Duke City typically has 1,500 to 1,800 vacant abandoned residential homes registered.
Williams’ code enforcement staff receives 45 to 50 complaints daily during the winter and up to 180 a day during the summer months, primarily about vacant homes. Williams said his 15 field inspectors are overstretched.
In cases where his staff or police respond repeatedly to complaints about break-ins or suspected drug activity, the City Council has the authority to condemn a property for demolition. Williams estimated that’s happened to 15 to 20 properties in the past year.
Albuquerque police detective Daniel Champine said appliances and metal stolen from abandoned houses are typically sold to pawn shops or recycling yards.
Valerie Padilla’s parents live across the street from a four-bedroom, five-bath foreclosed home on a street of custom homes north of Paseo del Norte which was listed for $522,600.
“The people just seemed to leave one night and got everything out. You could hear the trucks,” Padilla said. She said the place has been empty a few months and they hadn’t had any problems, but, she added, “This is a nice neighborhood.”
Nathan Clark lives next to an older adobe home near Fourth and Alameda NW where, he said, a son shot his father and then himself. The three-bedroom, one-bath foreclosed house is listed at around $45,000. Clark said it’s had renters but has mostly been empty for about four years.
Unlike during the recession in 2009, when the country saw an explosion in foreclosures linked to sub-prime mortgages, most foreclosures now are the result of a personal crisis, said Alan Fowler, executive vice president for First Mortgage Company in Albuquerque.
“It’s an event, a job loss, divorce, death or going from a full-time job to part time,” Fowler said.
Foreclosure processes required by the state and individual financial institutions are the key reasons it can take so long to get an empty house sold, Fowler said.
Why so long
In New Mexico, foreclosure is a judicial procedure requiring a court action that typically takes longer than in states with non-judicial procedures.
Before that process can start, a homeowner must be at least four months behind on payments. There are also “loss mitigation” programs that oblige lenders to work with borrowers for up to 12 months to avoid foreclosure, Fowler said.
A borrower who files for bankruptcy protection can also stave off a foreclosure. Fowler had a case where a husband and wife filed separately, one after another.
“They were playing the system. They knew what they were doing. They ended up living in the house three-and-a-half years without paying for it,” Fowler said.
Sometimes the companies responsible for processing payments don’t want to take on the legal and financial responsibility of owning more homes. As soon as foreclosure is completed, a bank becomes responsible for costs such as property taxes, repairs and homeowners’ association dues, according to Bankrate.com.
Freedman said foreclosed homes can be a low-cost buying opportunity for buyers who are often looking to fix them up and resell or rent them.
But unless they pay cash, said Freedman, would-be buyers of foreclosed properties often have difficulty getting proper documentation and financing, particularly if the homes need extensive repairs.
Between mid-September 2013 and mid-September this year, 20 percent of the 6,502 homes sold in Albuquerque were cash deals, according to Southwest Multiple Listing Service data.
Court action means slow foreclosures
At present, New Mexico is one of more than a dozen states where foreclosure is a judicial process requiring court action. It can typically take several months to complete.
Speeding up the process would require a change in state law to allow a trustee to oversee the process instead of going through a court, said Alan Fowler, executive vice president for First Mortgage Company in Albuquerque.
In states where foreclosure is a non-judicial process, it typically takes less time to complete, Fowler said.
There has been some talk at the Legislature about changing the law but no action has been taken so far.
Foreclosure rates falling in ABQ area
Although foreclosure rates for the metro area continue to drop in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Albuquerque and Rio Rancho still have hundreds of abandoned and neglected homes.
The slow economic rebound and sluggish job growth continue to put some mortgage holders in a squeeze.
One in every 1,181 homes in Albuquerque was in some stage of foreclosure in July, according to California-based RealtyTrac, which gathers housing data. In Rio Rancho, one in 455 homes was in foreclosure. The national average was one in 1,203 housing units in foreclosure in July.
Rio Rancho at one point had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. In early 2009, one in 32 homes was in some stage of foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac. That put Rio Rancho in a league with Stockton, Calif., and Detroit.