Foreclosure is bad. Finding out two years later that the bank never actually took your house, which is now crumbling, is even worse.
That’s what has been happening to thousands of families around the country. They receive a notice saying their house will be sold at auction in a few weeks and leave. The bank changes its mind or messes up the paperwork, and never actually forecloses. Years later the “former” owners find out they still own the house, along with the crushing maintenance bills and fines that have accumulated since they left.
Hence the term “zombie title;” a home that haunts its former owners, even after it’s supposed to be “dead.”
A heartbreaking Reuters special report by Michelle Conlon about Zombie Titles recently caught my eye.
“Unsuspecting homeowners have had their wages garnished, their credit destroyed and their tax refunds seized. They’ve opened their mail to find bills for back taxes, graffiti-scrubbing services, demolition crews, trash removal, gutter repair, exterior cleaning and lawn clipping. At their front doors they’ve encountered bailiffs brandishing summonses to appear in court.
In some cities, people with zombie titles can be sentenced to probation – with the threat of jail if they don’t bring their houses into compliance.
“These people have become like indentured serfs, with all of the responsibilities for the properties but none of the rights,” says retired Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Professor Kermit Lind.”
It may seem easy to dismiss phrases like “indentured serfs” and “zombie titles” as hyperbole, but that isn’t going to make the situation any less real. We must really ask ourselves if we are going to allow this to happen to our friends and family members, and what can we do together to stop it.
ZOMBIE TITLES HURT US ALL
The problems caused by zombie titles aren’t limited to the former owners. These vacant homes become a safety hazard and a drain on municipal budgets, lowering home values and morale.
“Once a bank walks away from a foreclosure, the real rot begins. Living rooms turn into meth labs. Falling shingles menace passers-by. Squatters’ cooking fires turn into infernos. The latest iteration of the trend: gas explosions.
Electric companies usually shut off the juice when homeowners tell the utility they are moving. But natural-gas companies usually don’t. In recent months, abandoned homes have exploded in Chicago, Cleveland and Bridgeport, Connecticut. In all cases, foreclosed homeowners had moved out. With no one home to smell the gas, it went undetected – until the houses blew.”
From what I’ve seen, most federal investigations and settlement actions have not been enough, and the Reuters report shows that I’m not alone in feeling this way:
“Joe Smith is the monitor of the National Mortgage Settlement, the agreement struck a year ago between major banks and state attorneys general to, in part, address foreclosure abuses. In a statement responding to a request for comment, he said: “To my knowledge, the servicers’ behavior in the situation… is not covered by any standards in the Settlement.” He added: “However, it does sound like there are problems with this type of treatment. I recommend the borrowers contact their state’s attorney general and remember that the Settlement does not preclude borrowers from taking their own legal action.”
We’ve allowed the framework of home ownership to become so complicated and nonsensical that everyone is losing, including banks. This is exactly why we must double our efforts to reform housing.
The time to fix this is now. Through better record keeping and a desire to do the right thing, we can make great strides towards putting the housing market back on solid ground.
From the Recorder