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Foreclosure registry aids code enforcement, but can’t overcome all obstacles

Someone once loved the little house at 6738 Fourth St. enough to hand-glue seashells to the mailbox and paint the walls a sunny yellow.

But that was a long time ago. The shells, bleached white from the sun, are dropping off and while the walls are still bright, an open sliding glass door in back leads into rooms littered with stale human artifacts — dirty paper plates, a little girl’s pink plastic high-heeled shoe, a filthy Winnie-the-Pooh blanket, a super-size squirt gun, dozens of DVD cases.

It’s been a year since Palm Beach County began requiring banks to pay $150 to register their foreclosures. Nearly $1.4 million has been collected, and officers slogging through foreclosure inventory are happy to now know who to contact when a property sours.

Sometimes, though, that’s only half the battle.

As with everything sucked into the foreclosure machine, success can be muted by the multi-layered home repossession system of lenders, loan servicers, property managers, their sub-contractors and the sheer volume of properties.

Palm Beach County has a vacant home rate of 6.7 percent, second only to Detroit for the percent of all unoccupied housing units, according to the real estate analysis firm Trulia. While not all homes are foreclosures, keeping up with the ones that are can be tedious and time consuming.

The cinderblock and stucco home on Fourth Street is in Palm Beach County’s registry, which is managed by Melbourne-based VacantRegistry.com. The private firm shares half of the $150 fee with the county.

Palm Beach County Senior Code Enforcement Officer Gail Vorpagel used the registry to send Wells Fargo Home Mortgage property preservation manager Andrew Hohensee an e-mail about the home on Aug. 3.

“You are listed in our vacant registry website as the property manager for the above property in Palm Beach County Florida,” she said. “As of today, the property is still in violation of county code, there is trash and debris all over the front and rear yards, and the back yard is overgrown.”

She got an automated response three days later: “You will receive a response within two business days.”

The home was purchased in 2005 for $251,500 when the Limestone Creek neighborhood in suburban Jupiter was considered a prime area for revitalization. Then the real estate market crashed.

The house is now valued at $76,759, according to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser. It sits just a few lots away from where three people were shot to death in two incidents in April and July.

The bank filed to foreclose in April 2010 and the home ended up on Vorpagel’s problem property list.

“When you get empty houses, it just invites bad behavior,” Vorpagel said. “Sometimes the grass just needs to be mowed, sometimes it’s a lot more.”

Palm Beach County Commissioners agreed in August 2011 to contract with VacantRegistry.com to track the county’s foreclosed homes.

Within 10 days of filing to foreclose, the lender is supposed to pay $150 to list the property with the company and provide contact information for the bank and a local property maintenance contact.

About 20 municipalities or county governments in Florida — including Lake Worth, Boynton Beach, Pahokee, and Royal Palm Beach — contract with VacantRegistry.com. The company was founded by Thomas Darnell, a former Bank of America and Chase executive familiar with the internal workings of lenders.

The county intends to use its take of the registry money — about $692,000 so far — to clean up and fix safety problems at abandoned properties where the ownership is unable to be determined.

Retired Boynton Beach code enforcement officer Scott Blasie began working for VacantRegistry.com last year.

“When I was in Boynton we would call the bank we thought was responsible and that was worthless,” said Blasie, who can often cut through lender red tape when he hears about a home that is seriously deteriorating.

The Palm Beach Post alerted Blasie to a home in the 8000 block of Burlington Court in suburban Lake Worth after neighbors called the newspaper following a story about another vacant home that ran Aug. 12.

Blasie inspected the home and found, among other violations, a large hole in the roof. A days-long e-mail exchange with Chase bank feretted out part of the problem. Chase’s property management company is allegedly being blocked from entering the gated community.The last time they inspected the home was February.

Blasie also sent certified letters this month to the nation’s largest lenders putting them on notice that VacantRegistry.com may start enforcement actions against lenders for not registering properties or complying with maintenance rules.

“We wanted to basically say, we’re going to come after you. If you do nothing else, put the State of Florida at the top of your to-do list,” he said.

Some banks don’t list maintenance companies located within 20 miles of Palm Beach County, as required by ordinance, and aren’t tracking whether a home is vacant or occupied, Vorpagel said.

“It’s like six layers you have to go through,” Vorpagel said. “You’re supposed to be working with a property manager within 20 miles but they’re in Tampa or out of state.”

When Vorpagel returned to the Fourth Street house Aug. 10, the front yard was tidy and the required vacant property notice was posted, but the backyard was still unkempt. The sliding glass door and a rear window gaped open.

“It appears whoever you hired to clean up and secure this property didn’t bother to go in the backyard,” she wrote Wells Fargo on Aug. 13 with five photos attached.

Two days later she got a note in the morning assuring her the Wells Fargo contractor has been sent back to the house to clean it out and secure it.

“I love it when a plan comes together,” Vorpagel said.

On Monday morning, two weeks after the first e-mail, the situation at 6738 Fourth St. was only marginally better. A pizza box, soda bottles and empty 23.5 ounce cans of Four Loko malt beverage littered the front yard. The house was still full of debris and garbage. But the sliding glass door and rear window were locked tight.

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