Cherry Hill proposes new regulations on abandoned houses

This abandoned house on Glen Lane in Cherry Hill has been empty for four years.
This abandoned house on Glen Lane in Cherry Hill has been empty for four years. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 23, 2013

Whenever John Aponik cuts the grass, bits of blue tarp get caught in the blades of his lawn mower.

Around Christmas, "it gets in all the wreaths," Aponik said of the tarp that has been shredding off the house next door to his on Glen Lane in Cherry Hill, where a renovation project was abandoned four years ago.

No one has lived in the house since then, Aponik said, although it isn't exactly vacant. "Raccoons, possums - cats were breeding out there," Aponik said, who has set traps lent to him by a neighbor.

He's also written letters to the mayor's office and repeatedly called a contractor employed by mortgage companies, but the problems remain: The township doesn't own the property.

But CitiMortgage, which has been paying the taxes on the house, says it doesn't either.

"You're at the end of the road, legally," Aponik said.

The township is trying to change that with an ordinance placing more regulations on owners of vacant houses. There are 145 in Cherry Hill, most abandoned as a result of foreclosure and now controlled by banks, according to the township.

Not many are as rundown as the house next to Aponik's, but the signs stand out in otherwise well-kept Cherry Hill neighborhoods: branches piled in overgrown flower beds, a gutter dangling from a roof, yellowed newspapers in driveways.

"You feel like your property values will go down if it's not kept up," said Marla Fletcher, who lives next to an abandoned house on Knollwood Drive and who has called the township about the grass.

Last summer, "it was like three feet high," she said.

The township gets about a dozen complaints each week from neighbors of abandoned houses, spokeswoman Bridget Palmer said.

Two property maintenance officers visit the sites and periodically cut the grass - at a cost of $250 to $500 each time, Palmer said. She said the township hired a second maintenance officer in part to deal with foreclosed properties.

Last year, 180 Cherry Hill properties had foreclosure filings, according to RealtyTrac, which analyzes foreclosures. That was an increase from 2011, when 119 properties had filings, but far below the 387 with filings in 2010. There are 24,000 single-family houses in Cherry Hill.

Liability issues prevent the township from doing more work on the vacant properties, Palmer said.

"Something needs to be done to push the banks along," she said.

To that end, the township is proposing that owners of vacant properties - houses that are unoccupied, aren't being marketed, and need work before anyone can live in them - be required to register with the township.

The township also wants to require owners to designate a local contact to receive code violations and pay an escalating fee each year a property sits empty and off the market.

The fee for the initial registration would be $500, climbing to $5,000 by the third renewal.

Among municipalities that have such vacant-property ordinances is neighboring Evesham, which has about 40 abandoned homes and which created a list to monitor them and request owners and mortgage companies to make repairs.

"We saw a lack of maintenance," Township Manager William Cromie said.

The Cherry Hill council passed its ordinance on first reading earlier this month and is expected to take a final vote Monday night, when a public hearing will be held.

In many of the Cherry Hill cases, people - rather than banks or mortgage companies - are listed as the owners on tax records. Palmer said the homes have not yet gone through foreclosure, a process that can take longer in New Jersey than in other states, in part because of extra consumer protections.

Though the banks aren't the owners of record on many properties, they are paying the taxes, Palmer said.

"If we were to go after the homeowner, they've already walked away from these properties," she said. "Either way, the banks are going to end up responsible."

The banks, however, say they aren't responsible until the house is theirs.

If a foreclosure hasn't been completed, "the borrower has the legal responsibility for maintenance, whether living in it or not," said Rick Simon, spokesman for Bank of America Home Loans.

Bank of America performs some maintenance at properties before foreclosure to secure and protect their value, Simon said.

Citi also maintains vacant properties, inspecting them each month after a homeowner is 45 days delinquent on mortgage payments, spokesman Mark Rodgers said.

He said Citi doesn't believe regulation is needed "given our interest in moving the disposition process along as timely as possible."

Wells Fargo sends a vendor to cut the grass at vacant properties every 10 days or two weeks, depending on the region, said Tyler Smith, vice president of real estate owned community development.

"It's certainly our intention to take care of all properties presale to the best of our ability," he said.

If Cherry Hill passes the ordinance, Smith said, Wells Fargo isn't likely to change its practices, since "it's really nothing different than what we want to do."

Wells Fargo - which already complies with 900 local ordinances across the country requiring registration of vacant properties - doesn't object to the proposal: "It just adds a step where we register it with the city so they know who to contact," Smith said.

That alone would be an improvement, Palmer said. "We know who the bank is, but you can't find a person to call," she said. "That's really the thing more than anything that we hope makes an impact."

For about a year, Aponik didn't know whom to call when he had a complaint about the house next door.

Then in 2010, he saw someone doing work at the house and got a phone number. Notices on the door show the house is managed by Safeguard Properties, an Ohio company employed by mortgage companies.

Since then, Aponik estimates, he's called the company as many as 15 times about the grass, trash, animals, and the shredding tarp.

He's been given no indication what will happen to to the property. CitiMortgage has been paying taxes on the house, Palmer said. Rodgers, the Citi spokesman, said he could not comment on the property because Citi does not own it.

Aponik wants it leveled. A technician for Verizon, he and his wife moved to Cherry Hill in 2007 from the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia.

"It was just too hectic over there," Aponik, 53, said. Now, he's tired of living next to a house in disrepair.

But he doesn't plan to move. "Nobody would buy this with that next door to it," he said. "We're stuck."


Contact Maddie Hanna at 856-779-3232, mhanna@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @maddiehanna.

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