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Tess Vigeland: Last month, when the city attorney’s office here in Los Angeles sued U.S. Bank over foreclosures that had been abandoned and left to rot, it reminded us just how long we’ve been in this mess and how damaging its been to communities all over the United States. I can’t tell you how many reports we’ve done on the foreclosure story. How many homeowners we’ve talked to — and banks and politicians. How many solutions have been proposed — and ignored. Four to five years after the bubble popped, the narrative hasn’t changed much.
But today, a perspective that maybe you haven’t heard before: From Officer Eric Young of the LAPD, Southeast Division.
Eric Young: OK, I’m gonna go to the east side of division, which is north of the Imperial Highway and east of Wilmington Avenue.
We were heading out on a tour of what the foreclosure crisis has wrought in Watts, an area of Los Angeles infamous for riots and gangs — and these days, boarded up, vacant homes.
Vigeland: So as we head over there, talk us through what you have seen over the last four years as the housing bust has hit this divison.
Young: You know, several years ago, property crimes took a back seat; all the violent crime we had. But now as our violent crime goes down, the department, the city, we’re focusing more on our property crimes.
Property crimes. Burglary. Trespassing. Vandalism. All hallmarks of the foreclosure crisis.
More than 1,500 foreclosure actions over the last year in a single zip code, according to RealtyTrac. And before we arrive in that zip code, a warning:
Young: You know I’m not gonna be doing any traffic stops or anything like that with you guys in the car. For safety reasons, though, if anything happens, push this orange button on my radio. If I can’t do that, this little orange button right here, and they’ll find us, OK?
Officer Young has served in southeast division for 12 years. His area of responsibility is the smallest in size, highest in crime. But it’s the evolution in the type of crime he battles that brought us to this ridealong.
Young: Four years ago — no, I’d say three years ago — it was probably at its worst. On any given day, I’d probably have 45, 50 vacant homes in my area.
There are 68 documented criminal street gangs in LAPD southeast division. Because of the foreclosure crisis, those gangs and the area’s homeless population have a whole lot more housing to choose from.
Young: This is an interesting place right here. It’s been vacant for about two and a half years. There was a homicide in that garage that went unnoticed for quite some time.
Vigeland: What is “quite some time”?
Young: Probably a couple weeks before we got to it.
Vigeland: Two weeks?
Young: Probably. It was pretty much based on the smell that it created. We’re gonna park the car here.
We parked in front of a boarded up, split-level house, fronted by a wire fence w ith a big hole cut out of it. The lawn was dried up and brown.
This property on Kalmia Street is in foreclosure. 2,300-square feet, list value $115,000 on the real estate website Redfin.
Young: As of this morning, these homes are owned by JPMorgan.
Vigeland: How long have they been unoccupied?
Young: Three years at least.
Vigeland: Three years.
Young: Hey who you with?
Turned out that morning a crew from Field Asset Services showed up at the house. FAS is contracted by banks to send clean-up crews to abandoned properties all over the country. William Perez was the crew chief for this job on Kalmia.
William Perez: I started three years ago. And my cousin told me that it would by six days a week, 80 hours a week. I laughed at him, “Oh come on, you’re not serious.” Six days a week, 80 hours a week. That’s what we got.
People say it’ll slow down. But with the amount of houses that are on foreclosure already, I’ll be working for the next two years straight.
Perez: Hello? Hey Ben. Yeah, I don’t know if I can finish it today, because there’s a lot. There’s I think 60 cubes.
Sixty cubes is 60 cubic yards of trash on this property. The city is supposed to fine property owners — i.e. the banks — $1,000 a day for houses that aren’t cleaned up. But officials say they don’t have the budget or manpower to track down and inspect all the foreclosures in L.A. So the fines go uncollected.
Young: Be super careful where you step you guys. But this is typical of what you’ll find in a vacant home around here. This is very typical.
Officer Young made his way to the back of the property, through broken window glass and more trash to a garage, strewn with filthy mattresses and drug paraphernalia and plastered in graffiti.
Young: OK, the gang took it over. This is the Fudge Town Mafia Crips, that’s their gang sign. So they were here first, and in come of the homeless people, the narcotics users and this is… a good dig. I mean, you’ve got four walls and a roof, living large.
Gary Kishner: In this particular property in Watts, we’ve had crews out at the property on average once a week for the past four months.
Gary Kishner is a spokesman for JPMorgan Chase.
Kishner: And unfortunately at this particular property, individuals in the community have been dumping.
Broken beer bottles and baby cribs… old toys and dirty clothes … over and over again.
Jenny Scheutz has researched the effects of the housing crisis for the USC Price School of Public Policy. She says banks are loan providers, not land lords and simply aren’t equipped to handle the mainatenance on millions of empty foreclosures.
Jenny Scheutz: They don’t want to be maintaining the lawns, they don’t want to be doign the exterior maintenance, doing the security. And they also haven’t been able to sell them and get them out of the inventory, becuase we have such a glut at this point.
All of that is, quite frankly, irrelevant to the people living near these blighted homes, whether they’re in multi-million dollar subdivisions or far down the economic scale here in Watts.
Elaine Brown: That many people going over there to the vacant properties, they urinate and trash…
Forty-eight-year-old Elaine Brown came out of her home across the street. She’s lived there since March.
Brown: And you know, I could come home late at night and it’s so dark over there, I can’t see when I’m coming home who’s over there, who can come out of there and jump out on me.
Vigeland: And how do you blame for this situation?
Brown: I blame the banks. Bottom line, I blame the banks.
Vigeland: What do you think they should have to do?
Brown: Really to be honest with you, because it’s moving too slow for a buyer, tear it down. And that’s it.