N.J. municipalities join forces to deal with vacant homes

Allison Rupert and daughter Meiya Miller, 4, with Benson, enjoy the backyard of their home in Haddonfield. The family has wanted to sell the home, but the derelict side next door makes this difficult.
Allison Rupert and daughter Meiya Miller, 4, with Benson, enjoy the backyard of their home in Haddonfield. The family has wanted to sell the home, but the derelict side next door makes this difficult. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2014

For Michael Miller and Allison Rupert, 58 Grove St. truly is the evil twin.

A ramshackle residence that shares a wall with the Haddonfield couple's well-kept home, 58 lost its last human dweller several years ago. Varmints got in through gaping windows, and Miller and Rupert have heard mice scurrying in the walls. They have spent thousands of dollars of their own money for tree removal to get rid of encroachment from 58's yard, where, in the summer, mosquitoes breed in untended puddles.

With 58's violation notices, weatherworn paint, and scruffy grounds, it can be embarrassing having friends over.

"So, yeah, it's a mess," Rupert said. "It sucks big time."

They have complained. Boy, have they complained. But it hasn't been easy figuring out whom to complain to, let alone get results.

"It's been bouncing back and forth from service company to service company," Miller said, "and quite frankly they haven't done much."

A new initiative could change that.

Several Camden County communities - Collingswood, Audubon, Haddonfield, Haddon Township, Oaklyn, Pennsauken, and the Fairview section of Camden - have joined forces, enlisting the help of two doctoral candidates and a master's student from Rutgers-Camden's department of public policy and administration to identify the abandoned or derelict vacant properties in their midst.

"First thing we're doing is collecting the data and finding out what properties are what," said Jim Maley, mayor of Collingswood, which led the effort. "Once we get that information, we can start to fashion a remedy."

The hope is that the coalition will be able to convince banks that may have gotten the houses through foreclosure that it is worthwhile to sell them. At the least, it wants the banks and mortgage companies to do a better job of maintenance.

Many of the properties - nearly 700 have been counted so far - are believed to be the casualties of the recession, the mortgage crisis, or both. Some are so-called zombies - properties in which foreclosure was commenced but not completed and the former owners have moved out. They are in communities of every economic stripe.

The Philadelphia region has the fifth-highest rate of zombies in the nation, according to RealtyTrac, a national real estate search engine. New Jersey's identified zombies went up 58 percent from the last year.

The towns believe the banks or mortgage companies should be responsible for the properties' maintenance.

"The quality of that leaves a lot to be desired," said Neal Rochford, Haddonfield's commissioner for public safety. "We're constantly on the phone."

And as Michael Miller found out, figuring out whom to call can be a challenge. Mortgages often shuffle from one institution to another.

"Right now, our biggest problem is getting contact information," said Bonnie Taft, Oaklyn's borough administrator.

Over on the borough's Walnut Avenue, a large tree fell July 3, damaging the vacant house it had stood in front of and coming down on a neighbor's RV.

On Friday, it was still there. Borough Police Chief Mark Moore said he started calling the maintenance company last week and finally got through to TD Bank, which holds the property. In April, a warning that the tree was in danger of falling was issued, and sometime after that, the bank was sent an order to take the tree down, Moore said.

Kathleen Toy, a TD Bank spokeswoman, said Friday that "we've been in communication with local representatives and are actively working the appropriate parties to remove the tree from the home."

Between avoiding practices such as subprime lending and the bank's own credit policies, TD did not experience the significant increase in delinquencies that some lenders did, according to Toy. In the case of foreclosures, third-party property managers are assigned, she said.

Pennsauken Mayor Jack Killion said more banks and loan companies needed to step up.

"It irks me," Killion said. "Everyday people have to follow the rules, and the rich and powerful find every loophole."

Both Camden and Audubon are requiring owners of vacant properties to register them; they risk fines if they fail to do so.

Derelict properties are bad news anywhere. They're eyesores that can hurt property values. They present health and safety hazards.

And they can be a drain on limited municipal resources. In response to residents' complaints, town officials said they will send out their own workers to mow a lawn and make a repair, sometimes placing a lien on the property.

"That's public works having to cut grass and maintain property, and that's time away from the projects in Haddon Township we want done," Mayor Randy Teague said.

Sometimes neighbors take matters into their own hands.

At 254 Harvard Ave. in Collingswood, a white-and-pink structure with a partially boarded-up front door and dead vines crawling its facade, one neighbor removed rain gutters that were threatening to fall off. Another has cut back vegetation growing into her driveway.

"There's a lot of bad feeling about that house," said Everett Davis, who with his wife, Michael, has lived on the street 41 years.

"There's got to be a way to get the mortgage companies to do something," he said. "The taxpayers end up being in the real estate business."

He'd like to see the towns start fining the banks.

"You'll see how fast the property gets unloaded."

Back in Haddonfield, Miller and Rupert, whose daughter is now 4, say they have wanted to sell their house for years, but the evil twin makes a sale problematic.

Over the years, Miller said, he has picked up about 50 business cards left next door by potential evil-twin buyers, but there has been no movement.

"It just boggles my mind there is so much inventory of properties in towns that are desirable, and they aren't unloading it," Miller said. "I just don't get it."

He's frustrated with the banks and the borough, frustrated by the lack of change. But word of the new initiative let in a little ray of hope.

"Any movement at this point would be good," he said.


Zombies Among Us

Abandoned or derelict vacant properties identified by students from Rutgers-Camden's department of public policy and administration, by municipality.

Audubon . . . 56

Camden (Fairview) . . . 115

Collingswood . . . 81

Haddon Township . . . 27

Haddonfield . . . 16

Oaklyn . . . 60

Pennsauken . . . 325

Total . . . 680


rgiordano@phillynews.com

856-779-3893

@ritagiordano

Staff writer Alan Heavens contributed to this article.

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