L.A. sues US Bank over blighted, abandoned homes
By Jessica Garrison and Angel Jennings, Los Angeles Times
July 16, 2012, 9:44 p.m.
For Mary Sanchez, the vacant, foreclosed home across from hers on Abner Street in El Sereno was an assault on the senses and her piece of mind.
Gang members and squatters used it as a stash house. The place stank of dead animals. Mice made constant incursions from across the way onto her property, prompting her to get cats to head them off. Weeds in the yard reached as high as her chest.
"It was embarrassing," she said. "When people would come over I would say 'look for the ugly house with all the stuff in the lawn. I live next to that.' "
On Monday, Los Angeles officials accused US Bank of illegally allowing the Abner Street home and many others to deteriorate into slums. The civil allegations found problems in the way US Bank handled 1,500 home foreclosures and cited more than 150 homes that had fallen into disrepair. The city is demanding that the bank clean up vacant properties and improve conditions for families living in others.
The lawsuit marks the second time the city has accused a major bank of being a slumlord, part of an aggressive attempt to deal with the urban decay caused by the housing crash.
Nearly a million California homes have been foreclosed on since the housing crisis began five years ago, displacing hundreds of thousands of homeowners and tenants and wreaking havoc on some neighborhoods. More than 362,000 California homes were in foreclosure or seriously delinquent as of March 31, and L.A. is one of several cities experimenting with ways to address the problems associated with such properties, including drug dealing and prostitution. A body was found in one vacant home in South L.A.
City officials say they want to hold banks that helped fuel the housing boom responsible for the blight that rippled through the city after those loans went bad. Large financial institutions such as Deutsche Bank, which the city has previously sued, and US Bank serve as trustees for pools of loans that were turned into securities and sold to investors.
Deutsche Bank and US Bank have argued that the blame for neglected, foreclosed homes lies not with them but with loan servicers, who are contracted to manage the properties. The loan servicers are firms — including many banks — that collect and monitor loan payments. Homeowners often send their monthly payments directly to those firms.
"Like the city attorney, we are troubled by properties that are not maintained, which have a corrosive impact on neighborhoods and communities," US Bank Senior Vice President Tom Joyce said in a statement. But he said loan servicers are "responsible for the upkeep of homes and properties and for interacting with homeowners and/or tenants."
Joyce added that US Bank has "made multiple requests of the city over the past couple of years to obtain detailed information on properties they considered to be in disrepair in order to immediately identify and work with the responsible servicer to address outstanding issues. Until very recently, the city has refused to provide us with that information."
But the city attorney's office says the bank, as the listed owner of the properties, bears ultimate responsibility to maintain the properties and be aware of problems.
The lawsuit follows an 18-month investigation by the city and accuses US Bank of fostering poor conditions in some neighborhoods that contribute to crime and blight. The bank was also responsible for illegally evicting some tenants and forcing others to live in dangerous conditions, according to the complaint.
The city is seeking an injunction and potentially millions of dollars in penalties and restitution from the Minneapolis-based financial institution, whose logo crowns the top of the West Coast's tallest building in downtown L.A.
"U.S. Bank National Assn. disregarded virtually every one of its legal duties and responsibilities as owner, resulting in the creation and maintenance of an alarming number of vacant nuisance properties," the complaint alleges. It also said the bank was "repeatedly advised" over the course of years to fix the problems, but "made no efforts … to comply with the law."
Last year's complaint targeted Deutsche Bank, the fourth largest bank in the world, for its actions related to more than 2,000 foreclosures in Los Angeles.
Among other problems, officials cited scores of alleged crimes committed at the properties, including possession of drugs for sale and assault with a deadly weapon. Deutsche too insists that the city has "sued the wrong party" and said the responsibility rests with loan servicers.
That suit is still in court.
Though blight and crime associated with foreclosures have been a problem for many cities, experts and city officials said Los Angeles' approach has not been adopted widely by other cities.
Stuart Gabriel, the director of the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate, said that the city was making an interesting legal argument and predicted that it would be "highly litigated and very contentious."
Other municipalities have tried equally creative measures to deal with problems from foreclosures.
Last month, San Bernardino County — along with the cities of Fontana and Ontario — announced a controversial plan to seize mortgages and restructure them for underwater homeowners using eminent domain.
Oakland has instituted a blight program that would require banks to register, inspect and maintain homes that are in foreclosure. Cleveland has been using a land bank program to tear down foreclosed homes.
Though the city has yet to collect any money it seeks from Deutsche, officials said that many properties the German bank is listed as owning have been cleaned up in recent months.
Neighbors of several US Bank properties said those have also been visited recently by workers.
Graffiti once covered a house at 4313 Crocker St. in South Los Angeles. And though the owners had lost the house to foreclosure, a lot of people roamed in and out, making the neighbors fear it was being used for prostitution and drug transactions.
But things changed about six months ago. The fence was replaced and a padlock added to keep the property closed to trespassers. Graffiti has also been painted over repeatedly.
And on Abner Street in El Sereno, a work crew showed up last Friday, according to neighbors. They did a massive clean-up — wearing protective overalls.
The city attorney's office invited neighbors who observe blighted conditions at other US Bank-owned properties to contact the city attorney's office at firstname.lastname@example.org