Next door to my home there’s a big, vacant house. The doors and windows have been boarded up with plywood since October 2013.
By the city’s standards, the house is derelict. And it’s one of roughly 300 properties just like it across Tacoma.
Walk down just about any block in my neighborhood and you’ll find one in a similar state of despair and disrepair. The same goes for most neighborhoods, or at least the poorer ones. According to city of Tacoma code inspection supervisor Dan McConaughy, the inspectors he oversees board up two or three houses a week.
As for anything changing next door, I’ve all but given up. I’ve moved beyond frustration and anger to a place of defeated acceptance.
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McConaughy’s familiar with all these emotions. He says the Code Enforcement division receives some 7,000 complaints a year of all varieties, but properties like the one next door to me inspire the most heated ones.
“We try to explain to them that we’re doing the best we can,” McConaughy tells me. “What they say is, ‘That’s not good enough. I pay my property taxes and I don’t expect things like this.’ ”
Whether they expect it or not, many Tacomans do live next door to something like this. Earlier this year, McConaughy put together a spreadsheet listing all the unoccupied derelict homes on the books. At the time, there were 308. Organized by neighborhood council districts, the South End and South Tacoma had a total of 147, while the East Side had 77. Central and New Tacoma had 64. Combined, the North End, West Tacoma and Northeast Tacoma had only 20.
Last Thursday afternoon, McConaughy, who hung drywall in his younger years and still has the forearms to prove it, packed inside a city-issued Prius and took me on a tour of 13 of what he describes as “the worst” derelict homes Tacoma has to offer.
What McConaughy showed me is something that’s become, unfortunately, commonplace. Empty homes with knee-high grass, broken windows, and all of them with the same thick plywood securing the doorways. To earn a derelict designation, McConaughy tells me, a property must be deemed unsafe for people to live in. By the time that happens, he says, most have been abandoned.
McConaughy’s been doing this for almost 29 years. During that time, he’s seen a lot of ugly, unsafe homes.
These days, however, McConaughy is more frustrated than usual. And it’s the banks that raise his ire. He describes an all-too-common scenario in which homeowners get a foreclosure notice and leave, thinking they’re relinquishing the property back to the bank. But the bank, for financial reasons, drags its feet on finalizing the foreclosure, presumably waiting for just the right time unload the property, when a buyer will materialize and there’s not a risk of it becoming a “real-estate-owned property” that they’ll be financially on the hook for.
And so these houses sit.
The result in neighborhoods: depressing tours like the one McConaughy took me on.
To some extent, this has always been the case. But what McConaughy says is different now is the length of time homes stew in what he calls the “black hole” of foreclosure. Of the 300 or so derelict properties in Tacoma, he estimates that about 60 percent are wallowing there. And of the 13 boarded-up homes on our tour, seven match this description.
A house we visit on East G Street has been sitting empty since December 2011; not far from it, on McKinley Avenue, another has been boarded up since August 2012.
McConaughy says, on average, “you’re looking at a couple years” before an abandoned, derelict foreclosed home comes full circle and gets back on the market. “It’s a long process,” he sighs.
The city does what it can. Recently Tacoma launched a derelict property registry, an attempt to apply a little more pressure on banks to get faster resolutions. And, since the height of the foreclosure crisis there have been successes using state and federal programs, along with Tacoma’s own Single-Family Blight Abatement Program, which launched in 2013 and actually got the city into the house-flipping business to the benefit of income-qualified buyers.
But according to Carey Jenkins, manager of the city’s housing division, for most of the “zombie homes” that remain, those tools just don’t cut it.
“We just kind of hit a wall with the availability of homes that met the criteria that works,” Jenkins explains, noting that, most importantly, there has to be a willing seller on the other end for the city to get involved.
Meanwhile, work at McConaughy’s office remains steady.
“We’re dealing with, like three or four major banks,” he says. “You know they’re not understanding this problem.”
As we pull up to the next empty house on his list, McConaughy says, “I can almost assure you that some of those people behind those big desks aren’t living next to something like this.”