A lost baby raccoon showed up on his porch the night of a storm and Mel Kaszupski was not sure whether or not it was rabid.

He was sure that it came from next door, a vacant bank-owned home in the 800 block on First Street in Northfield. The property has been abandoned for eight years and is now a nest for a family of raccoons.

“Raccoons are on the (roof), there are yellow stains on the roof and it stinks — and it’s full of mold,” Kaszupski said. “I don’t think they can sell the house.”

Defying a national trend, the number of vacant homes in New Jersey continues to grow, according to Census data and local officials, who say the problem is testing their ability to deal with overgrown lawns, broken fences and dirty pools created by the vacancies.

A combination of the poor economic climate, high unemployment rates and the effects of Hurricane Sandy have contributed to the increased number of vacant homes in the region.

In New Jersey, the number of vacant “for-sale” housing units now represent nearly 3 percent of all homes, according to the latest data. That percentage is the highest in recent years, and continues to rise even as nationally the number of vacant for sale homes is dropping, to under 2 percent. Rental properties have remained about the same in vacancies both in the state and nationally.

The lack of maintenance to these vacant properties poses both a fire and health hazard to the community, said Ventnor City Fire Chief John Hazlett.

Abandoned homes are also hazardous to responding firefighters, due to the vandalism of the properties, Millville fire Chief Kurt Hess said.

He said police officers have told him that sometimes people will enter the abandoned homes and steal copper wire or piping, creating holes in the walls and ceilings.

About 75 of all line-of-duty deaths nationally occured in unoccupied buildings, Hazlett said, citing a 10-year study in 2008 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“If someone has taken out the piping, but the water wasn’t turned off, the basement is flooded” when firefighters enter, Hess said. “For the most part, the difficulty is when there is no record of the owner, then there’s no one to help answer questions” after securing the premise.

Hazlett said individuals seeking shelter from the cold or animals can get in, creating a health hazard. A few years ago he said a person entered a vacant home and tried to light a fire on the floor to keep warm resulting in a burned building and the individual suffering severe burns.

Many municipalities take care of complaints from neighbors about abandoned properties through code enforcement, and usually end up doing the work required such as mowing the lawn or repairing a fence. To pay for the maintenance by public works departments, liens are assessed against the property by the municipality, based on man hours worked and equipment used, and sometimes additional fines are included.

“We try to do our best to keep the neighborhood looking nice,” said Diane Denroche, of the Stafford Township Zoning Department. “And when the new homeowner buys the property, they have to pay off the lien.”

Hamilton Township adopted an ordinance about a year ago to deal with the growing number of abandoned homes, said Administrator Michael Jacobs.

If the grass on a property is more than 10 inches, and a notice receives no reply within 10 days, the city puts a lien on the property along with a $100 per day fine, Jacobs said.

Millville has an ordinance to quell complaints from the start.

It requires banks to register the home, provide contact information within the bank, and a local maintenance contact. A registration fee of $100 is also required, said planning and zoning board secretary Samantha Fisher.

The fee covers a one-year registration, which includes two city inspections, Fisher said. If the house requires any maintenance or attention, the city will contact the bank and have them send a maintenance company to tend to the property. This covers the cost of the maintenance and avoids the task of tracking down an owner or putting a lien on the property.

Kenia Nunez, assistant municipal treasurer in Pleasantville, said that in some cases, the bank will have to pay off a lien before a property is sold. If no one claims the property, the lien is auctioned off in a tax sale, eliminating the debt to the municipality.

The process begins with a search of property tax records for a listed owner. Banks are required by law to notify a municipality of a property it owns after foreclosure, said Jimmy Agnesino, construction code official in Ventnor City. If the home is uninhabitable, a more frequent issue after Hurricane Sandy, the city will disconnect services and padlock the door.

A listed owner or bank will be mailed a certified notice, with a timeframe within which to respond, according to Walter Fiore, the code enforcement officer for Lower Township.

Pleasantville estimates about $150 to as much as $500 — depending on the size of the property — is assessed to cover the cost of maintenance, Public Works Superintendent Robert Oglesby said.

The rate per hour and costs assessed for equipment used are defined in an ordinance, Oglesby said.

Oglesby added he can recall a specific property that has been maintained for at least five years. In a case such as that, where the city continuously maintains the property, the only way to have the lien paid off is when the owner sells the property, or through a tax sale.

In Northfield, the First Street home has a notice to contact the bank for any maintenance, but Alice Foreman, another neighbor said they have hardly done anything. “They should just remove it.”

Ventnor has done just that if a property is a real threat to the community, Hazlett said. It’s an expense to the city, so the lien placed on the property is used to gain the funds for demolition.

The number of these homes, and subsequent burden varies by municipality. Lower Township, for example, has about 30 such properties, Fiore said.

In Ventnor, the number has multiplied due to the effects of Hurricane Sandy.

“Right now people are just waiting for insurance, and for their homes to get fixed,” Agnesino said.

Contact Anjalee Khemlani:

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