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May 23, 2015

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Juvenile offenders helping clean up homes in foreclosure

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Sam Morris

Youth offenders clean up the yard of a foreclosed home Thursday, July 28, 2011.

Abandoned Home Clean Up

Youth offenders clean up the yard of a foreclosed home Thursday, July 28, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Abandoned Home Clean Up

Across the valley, juvenile offenders are cleaning up foreclosed and abandoned properties.

This is what it’s come to amid the collapse of the housing market. Thirty-one kids, some of them gang members, weeding and trimming the front yard of a foreclosed home in northeast Las Vegas. County code enforcement officials had called Bank of America Corp., which was identified on a flier placed on the garage door as the contact for the home in this older, blue-collar neighborhood. Officials wanted the bank to maintain the property. But no one replied from the bank, according to the county.

So one recent weekday morning, Juvenile Probation Officer Kevin Niday and his Gang Intervention Team used three county vehicles to haul the teens to Christy Lane. There was a convicted shoplifter, several taggers, a couple of kids involved in street fights, some who used weapons. Each had been sentenced to 50 to 100 hours of community service.

Niday says the teens develop workplace discipline through the program, a fresh set of skills and the ability to work with other teens, some of whom may be from rival gangs. Yet, the longtime probation officer is also a realist. “They should be paying. They should be doing it,” Niday says of what the county characterizes as Bank of America’s failure to maintain the landscaping, “but it’s work for us.”

Some of that work is done by Niday’s crew, but much of it is performed by private contractors that charge about $300 per home, altogether costing the cash-strapped county about $350,000 through the budget year that ended June 30. County officials attempt to recoup those costs and related fines through liens placed against the homes, only to be recovered when those houses are sold.

Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani is pushing a proposal that would establish a registry of vacant and abandoned homes in unincorporated Clark County. Lenders that own the units would be required to identify locally based representatives who could be contacted to make necessary repairs, a practice that has been adopted by at least 17 local governments in foreclosure-ravaged Florida.

“They want to make sure that someone is responsible for keeping these properties up to code,” said Ron Pierce, a Tampa-based lobbyist who pushed for the measures’ passage throughout his home state and has met with Giunchigliani and fellow Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Susan Brager to push for its adoption here.

During her failed bid to become Las Vegas mayor, Giunchigliani walked door-to-door seeking votes, and said she routinely came upon foreclosed homes that were abandoned and had overgrown yards, broken windows and filthy, partially filled swimming pools that were primed to become carriers of viruses. Notices are often posted on the front of such homes identifying the holders of mortgages. The county commissioner called toll-free numbers listed on the forms and typically spoke with people out of state who knew little about the damaged homes and made little or no effort to dispatch crews to repair them.

What she discovered was the fallout from Wall Street investment houses that created the derivatives markets of the past 15 years — millions of mortgages purchased from original lenders, then sliced and diced into packages of high-, middle- and low-risk loans that are then sold to domestic and overseas investors who have no physical connection to the properties financed by those mortgages. One result is the fruitless phone calls for help placed by Giunchigliani to those toll-free numbers. “It’s a ghost feature to make it seem as though there’s someone responsible for the homes, and there really isn’t,” Giunchigliani said. “These banks are making a profit again; you know they have a responsibility to help maintain a community.”

A Bank of America representative did not return the Sun’s phone call and email message seeking comment about the foreclosed home that had its weeds pulled and sparse lawn trimmed by Niday’s crew of teen offenders. But Wells Fargo Home Mortgage spokesman Jason Menke noted that banks often listed as the contact for a foreclosed property are little more than processors for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, VA and FHA loans. “You can’t look at (the paperwork) and say that because Wells Fargo is listed as the contact (that) it’s our responsibility,” he said. About 20 percent of Wells Fargo’s foreclosed properties are actually owned by the bank, Menke said, noting that those houses have locally based property managers.

The front yard of the Christy Lane home was a mess, a potential poster child for the broken windows theory of law enforcement. The concept is simple: If you fail to repair a broken window, more will follow, and the entire feel of a neighborhood spirals downward, leading to increased crime and the eventual collapse of law and order.

The young offenders turned landscapers steadily moved through their tasks while Niday and two other probation officers watched. Most of the youngsters knew little of the financial issues that left this once-comfortable home vacant and scraggly looking, but several were surprised by what they found. “This is crap,” one of the kids said. “It’s very sad,” another said. But one teen may have spoken for an entire community when he asked a passer-by: “A bank owns this place? Hmmm, they ought to pay for it to be cleaned up.”

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