The peach-colored house in a modest subdivision near downtown Modesto, Calif., used to be someone's dream home. But it stands out in a row of similarly hued homes where many have a "For Sale" sign planted in their front yards. The two-story appears battered: its address has been scratched on a front panel and weeds choke what may once have been a manicured lawn. And then there is the overwhelming stench of human waste and stale beer. There has been no electricity and no running water since the bank repossessed it months ago. Still, at least three young men have been squatting here since January. The dream home has become a nightmare.
From a fire-gutted shell across from a pretty park on the north side of town to a mangy wreck near the airport where a collection of cats and dogs were found chained together in the yard, abandoned residences are putting a blight on all types of neighborhoods. "We get about six to ten calls a day on vacant homes," says police officer John McGill, who stresses that this isn't just a problem in the poorer parts of town.
Transients often move in, steal the power, tear apart the walls and floorboards in search of valuable copper wires and piping and set fires to cook drugs or keep warm. The police struggle to keep the damage under control; but with no owner around to claim a trespass violation on a repossessed home, it's difficult for them to make arrests. All they can do is tell the squatters to leave, board up the house and ship off a note to the bank that now owns the property. "It's a victimless crime," says Bert Lippert, a bit sarcastically.
Lippert, along with police officers McGill and Amy Bublak, make up the city's health unit, which takes care of vacant home problems. Burglaries are up 26% in Modesto since a year ago, and the officers say this has to do with the relentless assaults on foreclosed homes. "We're seeing a shift in crimes," Bublak says, noting that people used to just steal property from the outside. Now, in addition to vandalizing the property, stripping its bones and using the yard as a dumping ground, thieves have zeroed in on the homes' utilities. "Forty percent of foreclosed homes in Modesto get their power stolen," says the Modesto Irrigation District's Louis Maceira,who can often be found locking or removing meters from these homes.
Just recently, this quiet, agricultural town of 200,000 was in a boom period. House prices shot up in the early 2000s, and Modesto became a bedroom community for the Bay area. But then the subprime mortgage crisis hit hard: in February alone, Stanislaus County had 1,630 foreclosure filings, third highest in the nation. The physical toll it is taking on this hub nestled amid the almond groves is staggering. Huge, dusty stretches of subdivision developments lay untouched or partially built as developers run out of money.
The 300-bed homeless shelter is now at capacity, and the local Humane Society is swollen with pets that were left behind in homes when their owners disappeared. Day laborers and contractors alike are having trouble finding work. "This is a problem that's affecting the whole community," Lippert says.
There are some glimmers of hope on the horizon. Charities like Habitat for Humanity are taking advantage of the cheap home prices and labor to fix up abandoned properties for underprivileged families. The strangely upbeat Repo Home Tour bus is about to launch a regular Saturday showing of vacant houses in an effort to get them sold quickly. And the city, lenders and financial counselors are joining forces to help residents prevent foreclosure. In fact, less than a mile away from the peach-colored home, close to 1,000 people recently gathered for the city's first free No Homeowner Left Behind seminar, sponsored in part by the city and the local newspaper, the Modesto Bee. Worried residents gathered to spend their Saturday talking to lenders about how they can avoid losing their own homes. "I'm stressed and in turmoil and have butterflies in my stomach," says P.J. Scruggs, who says she is two months behind in paying her mortgage. She is afraid she will lose the home that has been in her family for 35 years. "It's scary this is just too rampant in the Valley."
If they need a cautionary nightmare, they can walk by the peach-colored house. Just beyond the front door, a toilet has exploded into the foyer and a thick sludge of feces seeps across the tiles and into the living room. Beer bottles, wine boxes, cigarette cartons, condom wrappers, dirty clothes and dog chow pile up on the soggy carpeting. Gang tags and drug-addled poetry splash the walls in red, gold and black spray paint. The decimated kitchen counters sag beneath jugs of curdled milk and rot-encrusted dishes. Scratched in the entrance hall is a fitting salutation: "Welcome to Hell."