Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Is Tacoma’s hot housing market lowering the number of abandoned derelict homes?

An abandoned house on 6521 Mckinley Ave., Tacoma on May 22, 2015.
An abandoned house on 6521 Mckinley Ave., Tacoma on May 22, 2015. Staff file, 2015

In May 2015, I took a car ride with city of Tacoma code inspection supervisor Dan McConaughy.

It resulted in one of my most-read columns to date.

Taking nothing away from McConaughy — who’s spent three decades working in code enforcement for the city, but still looks like a man who could hang drywall with ease, as he did in his younger days — the reason what I wrote resonated with people is because of what he showed me.

It was a tour of a handful of derelict homes — 13 of what he described at the time as “the worst” Tacoma had to offer.

Back then, there were 308 unoccupied derelict homes on the books in Tacoma, with many of them — about 60 percent, by McConaughy’s estimation — wallowing in what he described as “the black hole of foreclosure.”

That’s a colorful way of depicting homes that sit in a state of unfortunate financial limbo — where homeowners, who’ve received a foreclosure notice, have moved on, but the bank holding the mortgage has yet to finalize the foreclosure process. So the home sits empty, sometimes for years, with the bank presumably waiting for just the right time to initiate the trustee sale to unload the property.

The grass grows long. The windows often get broken out. Sometimes squatters take up residence.

Recently, I decided to check in again with McConaughy — who was nice enough to give me an updated tour of the 13 homes he showed me last year. With the real estate market in Tacoma and throughout the region humming — thanks, Seattle! — I couldn’t help but wonder if the situation with derelict homes stuck in McConaughy’s “black hole of foreclosure” had changed.

I was surprised to hear the answer.

Right now the market’s hot, so you would think of (the banks) selling more. But, no, I don’t see that. I don’t think the inspectors see that.

City of Tacoma code inspection supervisor Dan McConaughy

“Right now the market’s hot, so you would think of (the banks) selling more. But, no, I don’t see that,” McConaughy told me. “I don’t think the inspectors see that.”

“I’m very disappointed in the banks,” McConaughy reiterated.

How consistent has the problem of derelict homes in Tacoma remained since the last time I wrote about it? Of the 13 derelict and abandoned homes he showed me last time out, seven of these cases have been closed. They’re “wins,” as McConaughy calls them.

The trouble? “Half of them have been taken care of,” McConaughy says. “But there’s a new 13. That’s for sure.”

As of Sept. 6, there were a total of 390 unoccupied derelict homes throughout Tacoma. That’s 82 more than the last time I jumped in the passenger seat of McConaughy’s city-issued Prius.

While it’s important to note that not all derelict homes represent foreclosures, McConaughy and Lisa Wojtanowicz, the division manager with Tacoma’s Neighborhood and Community Services Department, confirm that many of them are.

While anecdotal, McConaughy sticks by his 60 percent estimate for the number of these homes stuck in the foreclosure purgatory.

In talking with Wojtanowicz, the neighborhood disparity of the problem is what becomes clear — and truly alarming.

In the city’s Council District 1 and 2 — representing the North End, West Side and downtown and Northeast Tacoma — there are a total of only 49 open cases of derelict and unfit buildings.

Moving southward, in City Council District 3, representing Hilltop and the Tacoma Mall area, the number grows to 77.

In City Council Districts 4 and 5 — representing much of South and all of East Tacoma — there are a total of 264.

264 The number of open unfit and derelict building cases in City Council Districts 4 and 5

“The sheer volume of those (derelict homes) that end up being in District 4 and 5 — that’s what’s concerning,” said Wojtanowicz. “They just kind of stack up. You clearly see it in the numbers.”

She described dealing with the issue as “top, top on our list … Because of the effect it has on neighborhoods.”

Wojtanowicz cites a goal of seeing a 50 percent reduction in the number of derelict properties in 10 years, identifying efforts to reach homeowners with resources before properties reach disrepair as one of the keys. She also points to existing programs, like Tacoma’s derelict property registry and a city initiative that identifies blighted or abandoned homes to buy and then sell to income-qualified buyers, as potential aides in the process.

Back in McConaughy’s front seat, and on the subject of the black hole of foreclosure, he tells me that if there’s good news, it’s that the hot housing market is helping foreclosed homes sell — once the banks finalize the process. Unfortunately, he and Wojtanowicz say, that seems to be happening quickest in neighborhoods where the banks see a potential for better returns (read: North Tacoma), and slower in neighborhoods where the financial payoff is less certain (read: South and East Tacoma).

So the cycle continues.

“What has improved is, once they do go on the market for sale, they’re turning swiftly and getting repaired quicker,” McConaughy says. “The sales market has definitely benefited our code enforcement actions.

“But, again,” he continues, “if they’re not getting foreclosed quickly, they’re not turning around quickly, and we have the same battles that every jurisdiction and every neighborhood has — a vacant piece of property that’s not being maintained.”