The houses, lawns and gardens on the Ashland Avenue cul-de-sac in Hamilton Township are well kept, some nearly park-like. Families in the neighborhood have children who play together, and the parents know each other. And then there is the one.
Sitting in the middle of the block, its knee-high grass and overall downtrodden look tell a sad story. It is one of almost 4,000 properties in Atlantic County in some stage of foreclosure, a symbol of how problems in the casino industry, poor employment prospects and low median wages have pushed the county to lead the nation in foreclosure activity and vacant, abandoned properties.
“It was a beautiful home at one point,” next-door neighbor Wendy Wardell said of the three-bedroom, two-bath extended ranch house. “There’s a pool in the backyard. They had the inside redone.”
But when the couple who lived there ran into personal difficulties about three years ago, the property started going downhill, she said. First the man moved out, then the woman left about a year ago, Wardell said.
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Wardell said she worries about more than appearances.
A series of young people come and go. At first, one of the former residents’ sons was there, but now it’s been people she doesn’t know.
“It’s random people in and out,” Wardell said. She worries about her kids and others on the street, with strangers around so much. And she worries about animals such as snakes and rats that might be attracted to the overgrown grass.
Neighbor Chris Corson said she walks her dogs by it every day, and it’s unnerving not knowing who lives there.
The property is now set for sheriff’s sale July 9, and the neighbors hope a family with kids will move in and bring it back to its former glory.
Many homes in the foreclosure pipeline have loans on them far above the value of the home, but not this one. With an estimated value at $172,850, according to RealtyTrac, and loans on it of about the same amount, it would seem like a property the bank would want to sell quickly.
Of the county’s 127,000 housing units, 3,985 are in some stage of foreclosure. That’s one in every 32 homes.
For months, Atlantic County has led the nation in foreclosure activity for metropolitan areas with more than 200,000 residents. One in every 230 homes in the county had some foreclosure activity in May 2015, the most recent data available, according to the real estate data company RealtyTrac.
That’s far higher than Lakeland, Florida, in second place for foreclosure activity, at one in every 331 properties.
Many more in Atlantic County are in foreclosure, but no new filings were made on them.
The county also has the U.S.’s highest rate of zombie foreclosures — properties that have been abandoned by their owners and are vacant, according to RealtyTrac.
One in 130 of the housing units in Atlantic County — which works out to 978 homes — meets the “zombie” definition, said RealtyTrac in a recent report.
Each has its own story of job loss, divorce, accident, illness or death, said Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles. Some result from gambling debts or other addictions, he said.
Sometimes it’s surprising whose homes end up in the foreclosure process.
Theresa Canfield lived next to the same woman in Somers Point for more than 50 years, she said.
Last year the neighbor, in her 80s, got sick and went to the hospital, she said. She died in a nursing home.
“The house is just like it was the day she left it,” Canfield said. “Half of the time I forget she’s gone.”
But now, according to RealtyTrac, the home is in pre-foreclosure, in which the lending company begins the process to eventually foreclose. The house is worth abut $171,741 and has a loan amount on it of $262,501, taken out in 2012, the company’s documents show.
There are stickers on the windows announcing that it is vacant and a property management company is responsible for maintenance. Canfield’s daughter has contacted the city for help in getting the maintenance company to clean up the backyard, but until recently the company hadn’t touched it, she said.
Canfield worries that water sitting constantly on the cover of the in-ground pool is a breeding ground for mosquitos. She, too, has a backyard pool and doesn’t want the critters making her grandson and his friends sick.
Balles estimated the recent wave of foreclosures doesn’t yet include people who lost jobs in the late 2014 mass layoffs in the casino industry.
“The banks may be seeing some of it, but I don’t think we are seeing any of it yet,” Balles said. “It takes a year or more for us to get it.”
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Every community has its share of foreclosed homes, Balles said.
In Linwood, considered a well-off community with outstanding schools, a house on Poplar Avenue has sat vacant for so long, shrubs now cover the front windows and block the front porch. A tree that seeded itself stretches up to cover a second-story window.
It is still in pre-foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac.
According to its listing, it has an estimated value of $249,543, but the loan amount on it is $345,400. It was last purchased in 2000 for $146,000 by a man now living in Flushing, New York.
“There was a family that lived there. They put the top floor on, then they left,” said neighbor Carl Ekstrom, whose well-kept split level home is directly across the street from the problem property.
Ekstrom and his wife have lived there since 1969, he said. When they had young children, they knew all their neighbors. Everyone took turns hosting neighborhood parties. Now he knows few of the people who live around him, he said, and almost no one across the street.
A house next to the vacant property is also for sale, and a third had a for-sale sign up for a while, he said.
Looking out from his front porch at a vacant and overgrown property isn’t pleasant, but he’s used to it, he said.
“It’s been so long, I push it to the side,” he said, adding it’s been empty almost a decade. “I don’t think about it.”
But if he had to sell his home, he said it would probably be a problem. He plans to stay to be close to his grandchildren, who live in Egg Harbor Township, he said.
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Faced with poor maintenance and the problem of vacant homes, neighbors may feel like celebrating when they hear a sheriff’s sale is set.
But the sales rarely result in a quick happy ending, said Balles.
First, the banks can postpone the sale as often as they want.
On a recent Thursday, “we had 50 homes to be auctioned,” Balles said. Only 25 to 30 actually went to auction.
Only a small number end up selling to anyone other than the bank that holds the mortgage.
“Two weeks ago we had 45 properties for sale, and we sold six to third-party buyers,” Balles said recently. “Last week we had 30, and only two sold to third parties.”
If a bank or mortgage company buys a property, it ends up vacant, or the mortgage holder asks the previous owners to stay to avoid the vacant look. It goes on the market for sale, and can stay on the market for years.
Even when properties sell to third parties, it’s usually to investors rather than families who will move in and immediately begin making improvements, he said.
But every once in a while there’s a happy outcome.
“A couple of weeks ago we sold a condo across from Lucy the Elephant,” Balles said. “It had more than $300,000 owed on it. The bank set an upset price at $145,000, and we had three people bidding on it — two investors and one single family.”
The family ended up getting it for $242,000, he said.
“It was well worth it,” said Balles.