April 27, 2008
By Jonathan Mummolo and Bill Brubaker
Washington Post

The growing foreclosure crisis has forced suburban law enforcement agencies to tackle a new challenge: policing empty houses.

As evictions mount and many houses remain unsold for months, even years, vacant properties have become havens for squatters, vandals, thieves, partying teenagers and worse, officials said.

In Springfield this winter, Fairfax County police found blood inside a vacant house and traced it to an injured sexual assault suspect who had been hiding there before he stole a car and fled. He was eventually caught in Maryland, police said.

About the same time, a 27-year-old woman was arrested by Loudoun County sheriff’s deputies after she, her husband and two children moved into a foreclosed house in Ashburn and allegedly tried to use forged documents to convince officers that she was the new owner, officials said.

"These people even managed to get the electricity turned on in their names," said Sgt. Shelby Ruby, a Loudoun deputy. "That’s some nerve, right there."

In some localities, officers are targeting vacant houses on regular patrols, using maps of foreclosed properties as guides, while working with community watch groups to identify trouble spots. Empty driveways, overgrown lawns, realty signs, lockboxes and "No Trespassing" notices in windows are all signals to would-be violators, police said.

"The bad guys, the criminals, that’s how they think," Fairfax County Police Lt. Daniel Janickey said.

Standing in the weeds of a trash-strewn yard at the house where the sexual assault suspect hid, Janickey pointed past the broken latch of a shed door toward a folded, worn mattress inside.

Across the property, more remnants of squatters — clothes, beer cans and a used tube of toothpaste — were strewn around a playhouse. A makeshift wooden step had been placed at the edge of the yard to help people hop a fence and cut across the lawn.

Authorities in the 38-square-mile Franconia police district are stepping up efforts to monitor an estimated 300 to 400 vacant houses. "I think it’s just unusual to see a community like this in Fairfax County," Janickey said. "There’s no one there for accountability."

Janickey’s officers have compiled a list of vacant houses that hangs in the station’s roll call room. A sergeant also posts pictures of known flophouses in the district. Patrol officers check to make sure that doors of vacant houses are locked and look for signs of vandalism and squatting.

In many cases, damage is inflicted by frustrated former homeowners.

In rural Lucketts in Loudoun, for example, an evicted homeowner made a defiant, if illegal, last stand, turning on an outdoor spigot before driving away, apparently so the property’s well would go dry, authorities said.

"People are angry," Loudoun Sheriff Steve O. Simpson said. "And our deputies who go to these houses to serve evictions find that people have stripped their houses of toilets and stoves and refrigerators." At the Lucketts property, deputies found that the hardwood floors also had been stripped.

Such trespassing also is cropping up in Kettering in Prince George’s County, which has the highest foreclosure rate of any county in Maryland, said Phil Lee, president of the Kettering Civic Federation.

"It’s tragic. Middle-class America is not accustomed to this," said Lee, who said two houses were recently boarded up to prevent trespassing. "In some cases, they are the former homeowners, who have nowhere to go. They just stay in the houses. They get evicted or they move, but they know it’s vacant," so they come back.

Foreclosure filings in the region have soared over the past year.

Last month, Prince William County had the most new filings of any Washington area jurisdiction, followed by Prince George’s, Fairfax, Montgomery, Loudoun and the District, according to RealtyTrac Inc., a California-based company that tracks real estate trends.

When foreclosures rise, crime often follows, researchers said. A 2005 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Woodstock Institute found that, holding other factors constant, each foreclosure in a 100-house neighborhood corresponded to a 2.4 percent jump in violent crime.

Law enforcement agencies typically don’t keep statistics for crimes that occur in vacant houses, but the concerns of local officials are mirrored across the nation.

In Modesto, Calif., police said marijuana is being grown in the yards of vacant houses. In Atlanta, police are compiling lists of vacancies, where drug use, prostitution and squatting are becoming more common, a police spokesman said. In the Tampa area, the Hillsborough County sheriff’s office has assigned a detective to specialize in metal theft, a response to a spike in copper tubing, air conditioners and other appliances being stolen from vacant houses.

In Prince William, police said real estate agents have been calling stations to ask that officers watch for trespassing at houses they are marketing. The Circuit Court recorded 3,344 foreclosures (a number that includes foreclosures in the city of Manassas and Manassas Park) last year, up from 282 in 2006.

The department’s crime prevention unit has begun distributing fliers to teenagers that warn of the serious charges that could follow if caught partying in a vacant house: burglary, trespassing, destruction of property.

"Is it OK to ‘hang out’ in a house or building that is vacant . . . ?" the flier asks. "NO," it answers. "Even if no one is living in the house, someone still owns the house/building and you would be committing a crime. . . . Think twice before entering a vacant building."

It’s a message aimed at teens like the ones Doug Thompson, 46, observed in West Gate, a neighborhood in the Manassas area riddled with unkempt foreclosed properties.

Thompson, who lives on King George Drive, said he recently saw teenagers on the block using the back porch of a neighboring vacant house as a skate park.

But what concerns him more than youths acting out is the degradation that comes with houses left unattended.

"Look at all the grass grow," he said, pointing to a jungle-like front yard across the street. "They just start falling apart. . . . Rats’ll start accumulating. I’m sure it will become a problem."

Some officials said that monitoring vacant houses is not straining department resources, that it’s something for officers to do in their downtime, between calls. But others, such as Loudoun’s force, are beginning to feel the burden.

"It’s costing the county money," said Ruby, who has at least one deputy working overtime every day.

Deputies had to evict one South Riding family three times before they moved for good, officials said.

"It’s the unfortunate state of the economy," Ruby said. "And the economy is a big reflection of the job we all have to do."

Staff researchers Magda Jean-Louis and Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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