Some Once-Crowded Homes Now Stand Vacant

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

The four-bedroom, 1950s rambler on Hanover Avenue in Springfield was an illegal boardinghouse, neighbors complained in February 2007. Some called it the "Hanover Hotel," a home with too many people, too much noise and a lot of cars.

County inspectors, under pressure from residents and elected officials to deal with a growing number of cases of residential overcrowding, found that the basement had been improperly divided into four rooms and that the house was set up for as many as 15 occupants.

They cited the owner, Elsa DeLeon, for a series of code violations and ordered her to bring the property into compliance. DeLeon, a Honduran immigrant, told The Washington Post at the time that only eight people lived there, all family members who were needed to help make the mortgage on the house she bought for $550,000 in 2006.

By May, it was in foreclosure, sold to Deutsche Bank National Trust of Kansas City for $120,600, according to county records. The house has been vacant for months; DeLeon could not be located to comment. It will go up for auction today, along with hundreds of other foreclosed properties areawide, at the Washington Convention Center. The starting price is $169,000 -- less than half the value of surrounding homes.

This situation is not what Fairfax County officials had in mind when they started cracking down on overcrowding. The goal was to restore stability in older neighborhoods where homes had been rented to immigrant laborers or purchased by extended immigrant families that pooled their resources in a region of premium housing prices.

Although the hard line has produced results, it has also yielded unintended consequences. In such instances as Hanover Avenue, one perceived blight has essentially been replaced by another: an overcrowded house for one that is vacant and in foreclosure.

No one is suggesting that more aggressive county enforcement, including the Enhanced Code Enforcement Strike Team begun last June, is the sole reason for the more than 1,800 bank-owned properties on the market in Fairfax. They are part of a national surge in foreclosures fueled by a flagging economy and the collapse of the subprime mortgage sector.

But on a new color-coded map created by the county to plot foreclosures in Fairfax from January 2007 though the end of last month, two bright orange spots dominate. Both also happen to be the focus of intense efforts to curb overcrowding: the Springfield neighborhoods that include the Hanover Avenue house and portions of Herndon.

In Herndon's case, the regulatory push has been led by the town government, which has instituted multiple policies aimed at making the community less hospitable to illegal immigrants.

No hard numbers are available to quantify the correlation between overcrowding enforcement and foreclosures. But Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said the evidence he has seen leaves him with little doubt. Owners unable to subsidize their mortgage payments with illegal numbers of occupants have been unable to keep their homes.

"It's mixed feelings," McKay said. "You hate to be the keeper of a neighborhood with a lot of foreclosures, but a lot of these are due to our systematic strike-team efforts. When you can't rent rooms in a boardinghouse, you're going to go out of business."

Although illegal occupancies can create serious quality-of-life issues, foreclosures can be just as toxic for a neighborhood. Subprime foreclosures in Virginia could push the value of nearby properties down by an average of $6,700 over the next two years, according to a study by the Center for Responsible Lending, a North Carolina nonprofit research firm.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company