• Mystery homes litter neighborhoods, hurt local government budgets

    By: Jodie Fleischer


    ATLANTA - As metro Atlanta neighborhoods fought to recover from the plummet in property values, abandoned eyesores remain a threat to city, county and school budgets.

    Channel 2 investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer contacted five counties and a dozen cities in north Georgia to get a handle on the number of vacant houses. She found the numbers weren't the only mystery. A huge part of the problem was mystery houses, or houses that no one will claim.

    "I just can't even begin to tell you how much I love the one I bought," said Angela Christian-Vaughn.

    She got a fantastic deal on a West End Home, and paid only $35,000. But when she looked beyond her own yard, she showed Fleischer one problem after another.

    "This one is vacant, that one is vacant, the one next to me is vacant, the one next to it is vacant," she said.

    The house across the street was of particular concern to Christian-Vaughn. For five years, code enforcement has repeatedly cited the home. The back taxes exceed $30,000. But the house could never sell for that amount.

    "I even was going to get the grass cut but the police have told me that I can't touch the property because it's not mine," said Christian-Vaughn.

    The listed owner, says it's not hers either.

    "They have never owned the houses. As far as I know they have never been inside the houses," said Pastor Stephen George.

    George told Channel 2 two young women from his church were victims of mortgage fraud. He says they ended up as the listed owners without paying a penny.

    Former Gov. Roy Barnes says his fair lending act helped get him voted out of office. The bank lobby rallied against him. The legislation that cracked down on bad loans, and mortgage slicing and dicing, lasted just three months.

    "The vacant houses that no one even knows who owns are all a result of a lack of leadership from the general assembly," said Barnes.

    Fleischer found DeKalb County records listed some properties simply as "unknown owner."

    She found the same thing in other counties.

    In other counties, including Cobb, the tax commissioner sent out tax bills to several dead people.

    In Jonesboro, the owner of one home walked away in 2008. Court records showed the bank didn't want it either.

    "He came to me back last year and said the bank had given him clear title," said next door neighbor Peggy Foster.

    She said she couldn't stand the eyesore.

    "So, I bought it for the taxes." It cost her $5,000. "It will take a little time, but I can fix it up," said Foster.

    Her latest problem is that the house on the other side of hers has been abandoned. And again, thousands of tax dollars have gone unpaid.

    "They've gone so long without doing anything to them that its cheaper for them, you know, to eat the mortgage and forget it. And that's what happens to a good
    neighborhood," said Foster.

    In some cases, a bank did foreclose, but no longer exists. Omni Bank was the listed owner of a home on Ada Avenue, but the bank failed in 2009. Unpaid taxes exceed $29,000.


    "It's a double whammy. First they don't get any tax revenue from the house that is sitting vacant and then because the house is sitting vacant it devalues the property around it, which means there is less revenue from the ones paying taxes," said Barnes.

    The city of Atlanta compiled a list of 950 unowned homes, but the code enforcement director admitted it was just a fraction of the problem.

    "It is quite alarming and it presents some very unique challenges," said Code Enforcement Director C.J. Davis. Davis admitted the city doesn't know the scope of the problem.

    "Sometimes records aren't as accurate and up to date as we would like them to be, and you can tend to go on a wild goose chase looking for owners."

    Atlanta has demolished some houses that no one owns, but it costs $10,000 to knock down a home, and $5,000 to clean it up.

    Many jurisdictions have started a vacant property registry, but the people who registered their property are the most likely to take care of the it. That means the lists miss the worst eyesores.

    Fleischer says neighbors can help cities and counties keep track of abandoned eyesores. She's posted links and a video on WSBTV.com to show residents how to look up a property, and track down who is supposed to be responsible for the house.

    On Tuesday at 6, Fleischer digs into why it's so difficult to do and the extreme measures critics have called for to try to bring the metro-area neighborhoods back.


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