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Abandoned homes become an 'American dream wasted'
Foreclosures, abandoned properties hurt neighborhoods
Andre Niles, former director of the Hall County Marshal's Office, walks past a foreclosed property on Mill Street in the New Holland community. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
At the end of a cul-de-sac in a tidy North Hall subdivision sits one house that doesn't match the others.

A tangle of weeds and grass has grown waist high, obscuring all but the top of the home from view.

Behind the brush is a house with no doors, its exposed drywall now a place for the yard's creeping vines to crawl.

Construction stopped before the house was completed, and despite its fine craftsmanship, it is fighting a losing battle with Mother Nature.

Mold has appeared on the home's high ceilings, and large, untreated timbers that hold up the back porch are starting to split.

"It's the American dream, wasted," said Andre Niles, director of the Hall County Marshals Office.

This Muscadine Valley home is just one of many foreclosed properties around Hall County that are drawing the ire of neighbors and county officials alike.

Niles said he has received countless phone calls from people in the neighborhood complaining about the abandoned property.

"There's nothing I can do about it," Niles said. "Who do you write the ticket to? A bank president in New Jersey?"

Foreclosed homes in Hall County could be owned by banks anywhere in the country, which can make it difficult to find the person in charge of maintenance.

"You'll find some that will come out, change the locks, winterize the place. But a lot of them - the mortgage companies owe us a little more than they are giving," he said as he shook his head.

In 2009, more than half of the 994 home sales in Hall County were foreclosures.

In Thursday's edition of The Times, there were 345 foreclosure listings.

"That's the most I've counted since I started counting in 2008," said Frank Norton Jr., president of the Gainesville-based Norton Agency, a real estate company.

Norton said he expects the supply of foreclosures will continue through the end of the year.

His agency handles about 300
bank-owned properties around metro Atlanta. Norton said some banks pay to have their properties maintained and want to have them sold as quickly as possible.

"We provide sort of an assessment initially with the banks, and in some cases we take management control of the house the afternoon of the foreclosure," Norton said. "If there is no one in that house, we begin changing the locks, go ahead and cut the grass and do an inspection of the inside of the house."

But it is not always that simple.

"What banks did is they would loan Mr. and Mrs. Smith a loan - that was a local lender. Then they'd sell the loan off, and then that loan would get sold off again and again. And sooner or later it was packaged in loans and sold off in bulk and sold to the Republic of China, which is interestingly enough a huge buyer of Countrywide loans," Norton said. "Now you have this just simple investor who ultimately owns the paper on some of these houses. That's when it gets complicated. And when it gets complicated it's a longer period of time."

A longer period of time is what leads to so many of the issues Niles deals with each day.

Norton said for many of these homes, it can cost as much as $35,000 to repair the damages caused during the extended vacancies just to put them back on the market.

The county's foreclosed homes are not clustered around any one area or demographic.

"The economy hit everybody the same," Niles said.

Overgrown grass is only a small worry for Niles, who said the empty buildings are a siren song for trouble.

In New Holland, a vacant rental house in the old mill village has been abandoned by its owners. The house's graffiti-covered exterior is visibly fire damaged and the lawn has gone wild.

Finding derelict property owners to fix their property can often be more difficult than finding someone to deal with foreclosures.

"We've had squatters, we've had gang-bangers, we've had an arsonist," Niles said, expressing concern for the safety of an elderly woman who lives across the street. "This is what she looks at every single day."

Commercial properties have also posed problems. A foreclosed building on Cleveland Highway that was once a nursing home is near collapse and has been looted countless times.

Niles often drives by the building and sees the doors ajar, a sure sign that someone has broken in again. Thieves break into the empty buildings to take everything from cabinets to copper wiring to sell.

"The only thing they haven't removed yet is the metal on the top of the building," Niles said.

He said the former nursing home is a particularly troubling property for the county marshals.

"We've done our best to get the bank to do something about this thing," Niles said. "It's a bad situation. It just makes you cringe at the things you know that could go on."

Gainesville Code Enforcement Manager Gary Kansky said vacant buildings have always been a problem, even in the best economic times.

"We don't need foreclosed houses to have people trying to move into them. That happens all the time in the structures we have that are vacant," Kansky said. "We've had a nuisance and abatement program here for a few years, and I think we have well over 200 houses and structures torn down in this city."

One of the troubled buildings, the Gainesville Motel, will soon be destroyed.

This year, Kansky said he has been relatively successful finding people to take care of problem houses, though it has been a challenge. He calls people all over the country, as far away as California and Arizona.

"A lot of phone calls, a lot of e-mails, and we're finally getting stuff cut and maintained. It's been a never-ending battle. It's not like it's your local bank, heck, even Lawrenceville or Atlanta, this is all the way across the United States or halfway across the United States," Kansky said. "They're just as interested in getting the properties maintained as we are. It takes a little time."