Editor's Note

This is the first part of a two-part series on the Douglas County housing market. The second will appear in Sunday's edition of The News-Review.

Driving through Roseburg’s Mill-Pine District, it seems like every other house has boarded-up windows, lawns overrun with weeds and sinking roofs layered with moss.

Roseburg officer Tony Powers knows the area well. He patrols the streets as often as he can with an eye on the abandoned houses. Some of the city’s homeless population seeks refuge from the winter’s dipping temperatures and heavy rains in these empty homes.

“If they have a place that they can go that’s going to take them out of the weather, they’re going to find those places,” Powers said during a ride along with reporters last month.

There are agencies that provide beds for people who are homeless, he noted. The Roseburg Rescue Mission has two facilities, one for men and another for women and children, and warming centers open their doors when temperatures dip below freezing.

But people who also struggle with substance abuse or mental instability, or both, might opt for a home of their own. That’s when they trespass on an abandoned property and leave behind a trail of dirty clothes, empty beer cans and syringes.

“That’s not my fault, that’s their fault,” Powers said. “That’s something they chose to do. It’s a lifestyle they chose. If they didn’t choose that lifestyle, they wouldn’t be out in the cold weather.”

Powers’s least favorite spot to patrol is an empty three-story business complex in downtown. Broken windows make for easy entrances, and people will set up their tents inside. Since the plumbing doesn’t work, they fill toilets that don’t flush, or they turn buckets (and, in one instance, a fish tank) into urinals.

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Roseburg Police Department master officer Tony Powers conducts a sweep through the Professional Center building in downtown Roseburg on Jan. 26. The unoccupied sections of the building are sometimes used as a shelter by trespassers.

THE ABANDONED PROBLEM

The historic Mill-Pine District is nestled between downtown Roseburg and the South Umpqua River. Most of its homes were built in the early 1900s and are distinctively American Craftsman: low-pitched gable roofs, spacious porches, tapered columns. The types of homes people in Portland are scrambling to snatch up for hundreds of thousands of dollars, cash in hand.

Abandoned properties, sometimes called “zombie homes,” make the Mill-Pine District less appealing. They sit vacant for months, sometimes years. Without proper attention, they decay and sink into themselves. Then trespassers find their way in and crime rates start to rise.

Police calls from 2016 show the district had more trespassing problems than any other residential area in Roseburg. That same data, obtained by The News-Review in a public records request, shows calls that use the words “squatter” and “vacant” tend to clutter in the Mill-Pine District.

ABOVE: A map showing the concentration of calls for service that include the keyword “vacant” or “squatter” from 2014 to 2016.

These abandoned homes and many others peppered around the county and state are lingering ghosts of the nation’s 2007 financial crisis. Prior to the crash, banks doled out mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them. When the housing bubble popped, those people lost their homes and a wave of foreclosures hit the market.

“At one point, in about 2010, there were so many that (banks) started withholding some homes from the market,” said Victoria Hawks, a Roseburg Realtor. “And that’s why we ended up with problems further down the road.”

Before foreclosing on a home, banks have to give homeowners six months to catch up on payments. That extension comes with additional fines and fees. Homeowners might throw in the towel early and move away before the foreclosure process is completed.

“If the people couldn’t afford to make the payments before, allowing them six months to catch up and still pay more is beyond the pale,” Hawks said. “But that’s the law now. It didn’t use to be that way, but now it is.”

ZOMBIES

After starting the process, a bank could suddenly decide not to foreclosure on a home after all is in order to avoid obtaining another liability, reads an Investopedia article titled “Zombie Titles.”

They are called zombie homes because they have, in a way, come back to life from the death of foreclosure.

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A “No Trespassing" sign displayed in a front window at an unoccupied home in Roseburg on Jan. 26.

Banks are not legally obligated to notify homeowners of their decision to avoid foreclosure, so it could be months or years before homeowners figure out what happened. Meanwhile, the homeowner collects debt from not paying property taxes, and ordinance violations for letting the home become an eyesore.

Rifling through a paper trail to find exactly who owns a vacant home can be arduous, particularly for police officers who need a homeowner’s permission to enter an abandoned house.

Like Roseburg, most cities and counties do not keep track of which homes are vacant and abandoned, and who owns them. The tax assessor’s office provides some information, but it is not always relevant.

“We get most of our information from citizens groups,” Roseburg code enforcement officer Dennis Randolph said. “They do more tracking on that than the city does.”

Without knowing the exact owner, the city does not know who to cite for ordinance violations such as garbage buildup or excessive weed growth. With no one to hold accountable, the house slips into decay and drags down values of surrounding homes.

Sutherlin has taken the issue into its own hands by requiring homeowners and banks to register their vacant properties with the city. This way officers know who to call when there’s a problem. Randolph said he and city staff are considering a similar registration process.

Douglas County is not alone in the vacant and abandoned home issue. Portland City Council decided to speed up the foreclosure process for five homes last year, after it voted to use eminent domain to foreclose on them, reads an Associated Press article from June 2016. The mayor has his eye on another 25 to 30 houses.

Hawks, who was a Roseburg city councilor until last month, said there might be some unintended consequences if Roseburg used a similar tactic.

“I don’t think they would want us to flood the market again with less desirable homes at cheaper prices, which then turn around and make other homes worth less,” she said.

The county’s abandoned homes, no matter how derelict they become, will eventually get on the market and they will get multiple offers, she said. That’s because the housing market is tight, even in rural Douglas County.

“They aren’t just left forever, it just feels like forever those first few years,” Hawks said. “It’s really been hard. It’s been challenging, let me tell you.”

ABOVE: A map of all trespassing calls for service in 2016 in Roseburg.

News-Review reporter Ian Campbell contributed to this story.

April Ehrlich covers Douglas County city halls for The News-Review. Follow her on Twitter @AprilEhrlich.

(5) comments

johnford
johnford

Note - PLS Govt. housing policy - From Wikipedia: -"The U.S. subprime mortgage crisis was a set of events and conditions that led to a financial crisis and subsequent recession that began in 2007. It was characterized by a rise in subprime mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures, and the resulting decline of securities backed by said mortgages. Several major financial institutions collapsed in September 2008, with significant disruption in the flow of credit to businesses and consumers and the onset of a severe global recession.

Government housing policies, over-regulation, failed regulation and deregulation have all been claimed as causes of the crisis, along with many others. While the modern financial system evolved, regulation did not keep pace and became mismatched with the risks building in the economy. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) tasked with investigating the causes of the crisis reported in January 2011 that: "We had a 21st-century financial system with 19th-century safeguards."

mysteron
mysteron

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1zSU_tlcVw

Mogie
Mogie

I feel sorry for the neighbors. They have to put up with piles of garbage, probably mounds of garbage, the garbage would attract rats, and who knows what else. If my property could be condemned just because someone else wants it (eminent domain) why can't the city condemn these houses also? If the house is abandoned and violations and property taxes not being kept up then you loose the house. I don't understand the difference.

mysteron
mysteron

You need to watch the documentary 'Inside Job'. That will tell you why this situation (both homelessness and abandoned properties) exists. Then tell me you are convinced it isn't going to happen again, and with the current administration, a lot sooner than many anticipated.

mysteron
mysteron

And when you watch Inside Job, and realize all the culprits, none of whom paid any price whatsoever, are still in control, and now thanks to Trump even more so, you will see why Bernie Sanders was so popular. Both Clinton and Trump are indentured to Wall Street, and now America will one again pay the cost. Only next time it will be worse and affect many more people. It's not hard to believe that the next one could wipe the US out completely.

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