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Group grades condition of foreclosures, offers a thumbs down

Live near a foreclosed home in lousy shape? Join the club.

National Fair Housing Alliance representatives visited 121 bank-owned homes in the Baltimore metro area and gave less than a third a good grade based on factors such as whether there was trash strewn about, overgrown grass, property damage and unsecured doors.

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The effort was part of a report on the condition of bank-owned homes in nine regions. The alliance and its partners said they found more problem foreclosures in neighborhoods whose residents are largely African-American or Latino than in predominantly white neighborhoods -- dramatically so, in some cases.

In the Baltimore area, though, the grades are close. The average maintenance score in African-American neighborhoods was just shy of 70 out of 100. In white neighborhoods, it was 71. (No predominantly Latino neighborhoods in the area were included -- residents of Hispanic or Latino origin make up a pretty small percentage of the population.)

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The bottom line for the Baltimore region was overall low scores, regardless of race -- the lowest for white neighborhoods among the regions studied and the second-lowest score for African-American neighborhoods. Dayton, Ohio was slightly worse.

Deidre Swesnik, spokeswoman for the National Fair Housing Alliance, noted that staffers did see differences in Baltimore-area neighborhoods, despite the close total scores. Forty-three percent of bank-owned properties in African-American neighborhoods had boarded-up windows, compared with 28 percent in white neighborhoods, the alliance said. Trash problems were also worse.

On the flip side, 25 percent of the bank-owned homes in white neighborhoods got an "F" grade in the Baltimore region, compared with 18 percent in African-American neighborhoods.

"The argument we make is banks need to be treating these properties the same, no matter where they are," Swesnik said. "We're not expecting them to do major overhauls of properties – they need to at least look like local properties around them. A lot of this is mowing the lawn, picking up trash. If you leave the lawn alone for three months, the grass is going to grow."

She added, "We found places where the doors were wide open. In some places, there literally were no doors."

Just six out of the 121 homes visited in the Baltimore region got an "A" grade, based on the point system the alliance used to score each property. The A and B homes accounted for 31 percent of the total, with the rest coming in with C's, D's or F's. (Twenty percent of the homes got an F.)

(Here's an example of how a vacant home can make life miserable for neighbors: This family's house was damaged by the empty rowhome next door.)

The alliance said Atlanta had a particularly large gap in maintenance scores depending on the neighborhood -- an average score of about 81 out of 100 (a B grade) for white areas vs. 65 (a D) for Latino areas. The biggest gap between white and African-American neighborhoods was in Philadelphia -- 82 vs. 72, respectively. (Philly's white neighborhoods scored slightly lower on average for the condition of bank-owned properties than its Latino neighborhoods, the only region where that held true.)

Charges of foreclosure-condition discrimination come on the heels of earlier complaints that lenders practiced "reverse redlining" -- targeting minority borrowers for expensive subprime loans with onerous terms that made foreclosure likely, and paying out bonuses to brokers when borrowers accepted loans with higher interest rates than they actually qualified for.

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