HARD TIMES Evictions and Refusals

Homeowners in D.C. Suburbs Become Squatters After Foreclosures

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009

One in a series about how the recession is touching lives

One former homeowner rigged his front door with coffeepots filled with boiling water. Another left piles of ferret feces. Hidden compartments have been used as living spaces, with people hiding in attics, tool sheds and garages to elude police.

In the D.C. suburbs, a new class of squatter has emerged, as people illegally remain in homes after they have lost them to the bank. Some have become aggressive in their efforts to stay, setting booby traps to ward off police.

"People got in over their heads, and they don't want to leave," said Loudoun County sheriff's Capt. Chuck Wyant, who oversees the department's five-person eviction unit.

The problem seems especially acute outside the Capital Beltway. Initially viewed as an unusual symptom of the economic downturn, squatting has grown into something closer to an epidemic in Loudoun. Court-ordered evictions in the county have more than doubled over the past three years, and a six-month backlog of cases at the Loudoun courthouse is a dire reminder that things might only get worse, Wyant said. A docket at the courthouse has been created for the approximately 2,300 in the county facing evictions.

"It's hit us hard, worse than other counties, because we grew so quickly," he said.

The squatters represent two distinct groups: victims of the foreclosure crisis, who have lost homes to the banks and refuse to leave, and homeless people who see in the growing number of vacant houses an opportunity to upgrade their standard of living.

Steve Whetzel has increasingly been dealing with the first group. He runs KNK Home Preservation in Warrenton, a company banks hire to clear out newly foreclosed homes. It was never unusual to find rotting food, broken appliances and less-than-sightly bathrooms left behind by disgruntled residents.

But in recent weeks, Whetzel said, he's responded to cases in which homeowners have threatened to harm themselves or others. About six weeks ago, at a house north of Frederick, a man threatened to kill members of Whetzel's crew, and county SWAT team members were called in. In a case outside Baltimore, a father tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills as he was being evicted. His two children were still inside the house.

"It's definitely intensified," Whetzel said. "Most people know we're coming."

A national survey released last month showing the impact of widespread foreclosures found that an estimated 42 percent of those who have lost their homes in the housing crisis now have no fixed address. People being forced out of foreclosed homes represent a quarter of those facing evictions in Loudoun; the others are renters who have stopped paying their landlords. The number of writ of possession procedures, a civil eviction process that can take months, more than doubled since 2005, from 639 to 1,310 last year.

"All of a sudden, a lot of longtime renters, a lot of families, are being evicted, with little or no notice," said Vickie Koth, executive director of the Good Shepherd Alliance, an Ashburn-based homelessness nonprofit group. "It's overwhelming."

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