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Spokane

Zombie houses plague neighborhoods and leave families heartbroken

Tue., Nov. 14, 2017, 6 a.m.

Karen Stratton doesn’t cry often. But the city councilwoman teared up last week as she looked out on the High Drive Conservation Area from her late aunt’s home on South Maple Boulevard.

“We always used to sit out here and eat pizza and watch the raccoons,” she said.

For the nearly 60 years Stratton’s aunt, Willabelle “Willy” Godfrey, lived there, the house was a family gathering place. Godfrey filled the house with antiques and took pride in her decor, which included a Tiffany lamp in the dining room and a dozen or so colorful wallpaper patterns, including stars on the kitchen ceiling.

Godfrey had always told her family she hoped another family would move in and start their story in her longtime home after she died.

“She was gonna go someplace great and this house would be somebody else’s dream,” Stratton said.

But when Godfrey died, on Christmas Eve in 2014, the house instead became a source of heartache, and eventually a nightmare.

Godfrey had taken out a reverse mortgage on the home, allowing her to convert some of her equity into cash to pay for repairs and medical expenses. That allowed her to stay in her home until her death, with full-time care toward the end of her life. But the deal also left her estate in debt.

Stratton sold her aunt’s possessions and intended to sell the house, but the family couldn’t get an offer above $200,000. The mortgage company said she’d need to sell for at least $230,000 to cover the debt, so the company took over the property in October 2015.

That should have been the end of Stratton’s involvement. But, as is often the case, the bank didn’t keep up the house and was slow to sell it. By the following spring, squatters had moved in.

Abandoned houses like Godfrey’s are sometimes called “zombie properties.” They’re houses that become persistent problems in the neighborhood, often because of the death of an owner or an incomplete foreclosure.

Sometimes, banks threaten foreclosure, but don’t follow through after the occupants move out. That creates a murky legal scenario where the bank hasn’t technically repossessed the home and therefore can’t take actions to secure or clean up the property.

Spokane’s registry of abandoned homes includes about 500 of these zombie properties.

Stratton called the mortgage company multiple times to report that squatters were coming and going from the property, leaving trash in the yard and breaking in when it was re-boarded. The company would change the locks, but that was about it.

“They didn’t seem to care,” she said.

When a squatting couple first moved in, neighbors reported they were keeping up the house and yard. Affidavits filed by neighbors say many weren’t aware the new occupants were squatters at first.

But by mid-2016, neighbors were calling Crime Check regularly to report problems. One saw people moving furniture out of the house. Most reported people were coming and going regularly, breaking into the house after it had been boarded up. One of the squatters managed to get the power turned back on without Stratton’s knowledge. He would later be arrested for possessing methamphetamine.

“It was awful because the neighbors didn’t deserve this and I just felt like it was my fault,” Stratton said.

On Aug. 25, 2016, a fire started in a car parked in the built-in garage at the basement level, causing about $100,000 worth of damage.

“My sister called and was hysterical,” Stratton said.

The woman squatting in the house had her phone number taped to the front door, telling people to call her if there were problems with the house. Stratton reached out to confront her about the fire. The woman said it started after an argument with her boyfriend.

“He just set her truck on fire in the garage. That’s what she told me,” Stratton said.

The house is now charred on the inside and still smells of smoke.

Neighbors said after the fire, they lived in fear. Godfrey’s house is part of a row overlooking a bluff with dry vegetation, and a fire could easily grow large and threaten other homes if not put out quickly.

The city is now trying a new method to get homes like Godfrey’s fixed up and sold quickly.

It’s a legal process called receivership, where the city files a petition to have someone local appointed to deal with the property.

The Spokane Police Department’s civil enforcement unit first collects information about the property. Detective Stacey Carr works to document calls for service and complaints from neighbors, while assistant city attorney Matt Folsom tries to untangle the often complex paper trail of banks, mortgage companies and others with a stake in the property.

Revisions to the city’s chronic nuisance ordinance in 2016 made it easier for a property to be legally declared a chronic nuisance if it’s abandoned. That can make the process a bit faster, Folsom said, though it still takes months to assemble the required documentation.

Once Folsom presents a case in court, a judge can appoint a receiver, who has legal authority to secure the home, clean it up and sell it. Banks can object in court, but few do, since a sale often means they’ll get some of the money they’re owed on the property back.

Tim Fischer, a Spokane attorney, has served as a receiver for a handful of abandoned homes across Spokane, including Godfrey’s. His first step is to secure the house and let neighbors know it’s being dealt with.

“The mortgage companies, they don’t care. They do the bare minimum,” Fischer said. Because he’s in Spokane and being paid to take care of the property, he can be much more responsive to concerns.

Fischer has served as a receiver for Stratton’s house and a handful of other properties. He typically tries to get a house sold within 30 days. The sale price goes toward paying off liens on the house in the order prescribed by law. Those usually include the mortgage, as well as city liens for unpaid utility bills and cleanup costs.

Fischer said he liked being able to give neighbors peace of mind.

“These are the fun cases. These are what I enjoy,” Fischer said.

He was appointed to take care of Godfrey’s house in mid-September, and has already accepted an offer of $202,500 from a company that plans to refurbish the home and sell it to a new owner.

Stratton hadn’t been in the house since 2015 until she visited last week to see the interior. She said it was too painful to see the damage that squatters had done.

“It’s very easy to get sucked up into it and just not know how to fix it,” she said.

Knowing the house may someday hold a new family is a consolation, she said.

Cleaning up nuisance and abandoned properties has been a project of Councilwoman Amber Waldref, whose term expires at the end of the year.

Stratton said she’d like to take that work over now that she’s seen firsthand the impact an abandoned property can have on a neighborhood.

“I’ve really learned how frustrating it is dealing with systems that are bigger than we imagine and to not have a voice,” she said.