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As Foreclosed Homes Empty, Crime Arrives

In rural Lucketts in Loudoun, for example, an evicted homeowner made a defiant, if illegal, last stand, turning on an outdoor spigot before driving away, apparently so the property's well would go dry, authorities said.

"People are angry," Loudoun Sheriff Steve O. Simpson said. "And our deputies who go to these houses to serve evictions find that people have stripped their houses of toilets and stoves and refrigerators." At the Lucketts property, deputies found that the hardwood floors also had been stripped.

Such trespassing also is cropping up in Kettering in Prince George's County, which has the highest foreclosure rate of any county in Maryland, said Phil Lee, president of the Kettering Civic Federation.

"It's tragic. Middle-class America is not accustomed to this," said Lee, who said two houses were recently boarded up to prevent trespassing. "In some cases, they are the former homeowners, who have nowhere to go. They just stay in the houses. They get evicted or they move, but they know it's vacant," so they come back.

Foreclosure filings in the region have soared over the past year.

Last month, Prince William County had the most new filings of any Washington area jurisdiction, followed by Prince George's, Fairfax, Montgomery, Loudoun and the District, according to RealtyTrac Inc., a California-based company that tracks real estate trends.

When foreclosures rise, crime often follows, researchers said. A 2005 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Woodstock Institute found that, holding other factors constant, each foreclosure in a 100-house neighborhood corresponded to a 2.4 percent jump in violent crime.

Law enforcement agencies typically don't keep statistics for crimes that occur in vacant houses, but the concerns of local officials are mirrored across the nation.

In Modesto, Calif., police said marijuana is being grown in the yards of vacant houses. In Atlanta, police are compiling lists of vacancies, where drug use, prostitution and squatting are becoming more common, a police spokesman said. In the Tampa area, the Hillsborough County sheriff's office has assigned a detective to specialize in metal theft, a response to a spike in copper tubing, air conditioners and other appliances being stolen from vacant houses.

In Prince William, police said real estate agents have been calling stations to ask that officers watch for trespassing at houses they are marketing. The Circuit Court recorded 3,344 foreclosures (a number that includes foreclosures in the city of Manassas and Manassas Park) last year, up from 282 in 2006.

The department's crime prevention unit has begun distributing fliers to teenagers that warn of the serious charges that could follow if caught partying in a vacant house: burglary, trespassing, destruction of property.

"Is it OK to 'hang out' in a house or building that is vacant . . . ?" the flier asks. "NO," it answers. "Even if no one is living in the house, someone still owns the house/building and you would be committing a crime. . . . Think twice before entering a vacant building."


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