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September 4, 2007 - 12:14AM
Abandoned homes let health risks move in
Dennis Welch, Tribune
Cash-strapped homeowners facing foreclosure are abandoning their homes in higher numbers and leaving behind potential public safety and health risks.
City code enforcers and county health officials are saying many of the vacated houses are showing up in newer high-end subdivisions historically immune to such trends.
And it appears the problem will get worse before it gets better as financial experts predict the number of foreclosures will continue to increase well into next year.
That could create even more problems for local and county officials and neighborhoods left to clean up the mess.
“Our No. 1 concern is the public’s health,” said Johnny Diloné, a spokesman for Maricopa County Environmental Health Services.
Once homeowners pack up and leave, the vacated houses create problems that include the overall appearance of the neighborhood and more serious health hazards.
Green stagnant pools can become breeding grounds for mosquitoes that can carry West Nile virus.
Empty homes can become flop houses for squatters and vandals. Unkempt yards are eyesores for neighbors that can also bring property values down.
Maricopa County health officials say they are on pace to respond to a near record number of green pool complaints this year.
So far this year, county workers have responded to more than 4,500 such complaints, according to public records. Last year, the county responded to about 4,900. While foreclosures don’t account for all the complaints, they do account, in part, for the increase, county officials said.
Once the county receives a complaint, health officials say they try to work with property owners to clean it up. Notices will be sent to the property owners and if that doesn’t work, the county will send a representative to the home.
After the county has taken those steps, it can obtain a special court order to enter the property and treat the pools. One way to do that is to release mosquito-eating fish into the water.
“Our main goal is to give the homeowners every opportunity to clean the pools themselves before we have to,” Diloné said.
Potential health risks are only one problem created by the rising number of vacant homes. Local police departments say empty homes are always areas of concern.
Mesa police officer Chris Arvayo said he has seen abandoned homes used for parties by teenagers and for criminal activity such as drug dealing.
But spotting an abandoned home isn’t that easy, he said. Unless there are obvious signs, it can be nearly impossible to spot. He said police get most of their information from residents living in the neighborhoods.
“It’s something we always want to be aware of. And for the most part, our beat officers know their beats,” Arvayo said. “Anytime a house is left empty there’s a chance it can become a place for criminal activity.”
And it looks like there will be more empty homes dotting the Valley. More than 2,400 foreclosure notices were sent to Valley homeowners in July, according to the Information Market, a Glendale-based firm that tracks such numbers.
Last month, more than 2,800 were mailed out as of Aug. 30 — about 93 per day — according to the firm. That’s a large increase over the past two years.
In August 2005, banks sent 781 notices of foreclosure. Notices for August 2006 totaled 1,014, according to the Information Market’s records.
“It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” said Tom Ruff, a principal owner of the Information Market.
Currently about 37 percent of the houses for sale in the Valley are listed as vacant, said Jim Sexton, owner of John Hall and Associates, a Phoenixbased realty firm.
Although he didn’t have exact numbers of vacant homes, Sexton said it’s a huge increase from prior years.
For example, three years ago there were about 20,000 to 25,000 houses for sale statewide.
“Now there’s about that many vacant homes just in the Valley,” Sexton said.