'Zombie' homes haunt Florida neighborhoods

Alison Fitzgerald

Kelly Young was stunned when she got a letter in January informing her that her disability payments, those of her daughter, and their Medicare benefits were being cut off. The Social Security Administration said she lied on her application when she failed to disclose she owned a house.

As far as Young knew, she didn’t own anything. Four years earlier, Bank of America informed her it was foreclosing on her tiny yellow ranch-style house in Jacksonville, Florida, after the 45-year-old mother of three fell behind on her payments. When Young got the bank’s letter, she didn’t fight.

“They said foreclosure, so we just up and left,” said Young, sitting in the darkened living room of her rental house in a nightdress that reveals the bandages from recent heart surgery and the tubing from a dialysis port. “I’m not going to sit here and let someone put me out. I’ve never been evicted.”

The problem is, Bank of America never followed through. Now, four years later, Young struggles to pay her bills while across town her house sits empty, strewn with trash and rotting under a leaky roof, collecting fines for code violations and unpaid taxes and fees related to the delinquent mortgage.

Related: The state of Florida's zombie foreclosures

Young went five months without any disability payments and was living off the kindness of her landlord. In May, her benefits were restored, but she’s still fighting to get her 16-year-old daughter’s disability payments restarted. The developmentally disabled teen needs medication every day and has been getting by on samples provided by public health clinics.

Young’s case is particularly harsh, but not unique.

Jacksonville’s poor neighborhoods are dotted with abandoned houses stuck in foreclosure limbo. The so-called zombie properties are often uninhabitable because they’ve fallen into disrepair, and owners are unwilling to invest in fixing them up because, with the mortgage unpaid, the bank can always come back and foreclose again.

By cherry-picking which foreclosures they complete and which they ignore, banks are saddling individual borrowers with a permanent, inescapable debt while helping to create slums in already struggling communities. The vacant homes often attract drug dealers and squatters and bring down the value of surrounding properties.

Related: Investigating Florida's parallel legal system for foreclosures

‘These houses are unsafe’

When you call the city of Jacksonville’s main phone number, the first option offered by an automated system is how to report blighted properties.

City Councilwoman Denise Lee last year established a blight subcommittee which meets every other week trying to deal with the properties and associated crime.

“These houses are unsafe. A lot of druggies come, they use the houses, they bring the property values down, [and the houses] get infested with rodents,” Lee said.

Related: Homeowners steamrolled as Florida courts clear foreclosure backlog

Driving around north Jacksonville, Allison Albert, a lawyer at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid who is representing Young, guides a tour of foreclosure despair. One neighborhood, ironically named Sherwood Forest after the place where the legendary Robin Hood hid out, features street after street of tiny ranch houses. On each block there are a handful of homes that are boarded up or clearly abandoned.

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Copyright 2014 The Center for Public Integrity. This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.