“Why they didn’t board it up, I don’t know,” said Button, who summoned police to the house several times and tried contacting the loan servicer. “I said, ‘You going to wait until the house catches fire?’ And sure enough . . . ”
This is what the end of a housing crisis looks like: steadily rising home prices, foreclosure filings at five-year lows, but also millions of vacant foreclosed homes.
Years after the housing market crashed, recovering communities from Las Vegas to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., continue to grapple with a glut of vacant properties, which drag down property values, attract vandals and drain public resources.
While Prince George’s County escaped the kind of double-digit vacancy rates seen in Nevada and Florida, it had one of the highest percentages of vacant homes of any county in the Washington region.
About 7.4 percent of homes in Prince George’s, one of the Maryland jurisdictions hit hardest by foreclosures, were vacant in the 2010 Census, compared with 4.6 percent in Prince William County, another local epicenter of the housing meltdown.
The housing market in Prince George’s turned a corner in the spring, said Lisa Sturtevant, who studies housing data for George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis. Prices have been slowly climbing ever since, providing hope to the more than half of Prince George’s homeowners who owe more than their houses are worth.
But there is still a stubborn backlog of foreclosures, created by a nationwide moratorium on foreclosures two years ago and by a Maryland foreclosure process that averages more than 500 days, one of the nation’s longest.
As a result, houses in Prince George’s are still sitting empty two or three years after foreclosure.
No one is sure how many vacant houses there are. The county’s registry of foreclosed properties now tops 51,000, according to the Department of Environmental Resources. In July, the department, which oversees code enforcement, started tracking vacant properties that are the target of complaints. So far, it knows of 1,922.
But the actual number of vacant foreclosures is likely higher. Nationally, as many as 50 percent of homes in foreclosure are vacant by the time the process is over, the Government Accountability Office reported in 2011.
Vacant properties impose costs on communities whether they tend to them or not. Neglect, maintenance and demolition all come with a price.
In Maryland, officials have tried various strategies to deal with problem, including distributing funds to buy, renovate and resell vacant foreclosures. In October, they began fast-tracking foreclosures of some abandoned properties and began requiring banks to register foreclosed homes to help local code enforcers.