Vacant Homes Flame Fears of Neighborhood Fires

In Brockton, Mass.–and in other U.S. areas experiencing foreclosures–vacant homes have caused another concern: Foreclosure fires.

Vacant homes already have been blamed for inviting crime to many neighborhoods.

  • According to a report by the Georgia Institute of Technology and Geoff Smith of Woodstock Institute, a one percentage point increase in the foreclosure rate brings neighborhood violent crime up 2.33 percent.
  • And the trend isn’t limited to urban areas: Even middle-class, new neighborhoods aren’t safe, according to a November MSNBC report. Nor is it limited to Massachusetts. With the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, California has had similar fears, according to a recent NPR report.

Vacant homes have also killed property values in areas with a high concentration of them: According to a 2001 Temple University study in Philadelphia, being within just 150 feet of an abandoned home can cut $7,600 from a home’s value.

Plus empty homes can cost cities tax revenue–in addition to money to keep the property up. If a lender just walks away from a home after foreclosing, it can take years for the city to gain ownership for unpaid taxes, MSNBC says.

But now, some officials are worried that empty properties will spark arson fires–which were a problem in Massachusetts during the 1990s real estate slump, according to Boston’s ABC affiliate.

At least six houses burned down in Brockton, Mass., over the winter; state
Fire Marshal Stephen Coan fears there will be more if the foreclosure rate doesn’t improve–so he’s joining banking regulators with real estate industry members to work on a solution.

Intentional insurance fires aren’t the only concern.

Banks aren’t watching their foreclosed properties in detail, according to Modesto, Calif., Police Chief Roy Wasden."As it gets colder, (squatters) will start building fires in these structures and it’s quite dangerous," he told MSNBC in fall.

Winter may be almost over, but squatters living in empty houses or vacant units need a heat source
to cook or warm the electricity-free home until summer fully arrives. (Hey, I turned my heat on twice this week.)

And, for obvious reasons, empty homes on fire–especially in a multifamily setting–are a huge risk to the  surrounding properties.

But how do we police bankrupt homes if banks won’t? Given the amount that are falling into foreclosure currently, it would be a taxing task for any local government or agency.

However, the risks of letting vacant homes affect our neighborhoods are high. What would you suggest doing?