South Jersey towns create registry of ‘zombie foreclosures’

Listen

Abandoned homes have become much more commonplace in the years after the housing crisis.

Ten Gloucester County town fed up with the blighted buildings are creating a registry of abandoned homes to more easily fine the owners who let their properties deteriorate — or work out a deal with the banks to get the homes back on the market.

According to Gloucester County administrator Chad Bruner, municipalities can have difficulty tracking down a property owner across a complicated paper trail.

“The experience that we’ve been hearing is: they call, they dial around, they keep getting pushed around from one to another to another,” said Bruner. “This program here is supposed to stop all that.”

One impetus for the registry is the recent spurt of “zombie foreclosures” — where an owner abandons a house before the bank holding the mortgage can formally take over the title — in New Jersey. According to RealtyTrac, a real estate data analytics firm, the state has the highest rate of zombie foreclosures in the country.

Lacking a caretaker, these homes often fall into disrepair.

“You can see it when you’re driving by major roads. Or even in neighborhoods, you see some houses with high weeds and boarded up,” said Bruner of abandoned homes in the suburban Philadelphia county. “It doesn’t fit in a charming area that once was.”

An abandoned home can also invite illegal activity and negatively impact its community, said Ron Mulberry, senior vice president for Community Champions Corporation, the company helping Gloucester County manage its registry.

“From drugs to prostitution to vagrants living in the property in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. All of that contributes to the reduction of the value of the property, which then lowers the values throughout the neighborhood.”

The registry’s ultimate goal is to inform local officials about properties that are good candidates to be taken over and resold to prospective buyers, Mulberry said, bolstering the municipality’s economy in the process.

“We get the owner to sign off a deed to the property, we get the bank to waive the mortgage, and we provide the funding to a nonprofit organization locally to rehab[ilitate] the property, put it back on the market, and get a family in there,” he said.

“So we’re kind of like the zombie killers.”

A program that started among Camden County towns last year is trying to bundle similarly foreclosed properties together so banks become more interested in selling them off and recouping some of their money.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.