Prince George's County turns to demolition in slow foreclosure recovery

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Photo - Bulldozer treads creap along
Bulldozer treads creap along
Local,Maryland,Matt Connolly

Prince George's County has a new plan to deal with all the foreclosures scarring its landscape: bulldoze them.

The county is stepping up its war on foreclosures by relying on a previously seldom-used rule that lets officials demolish any properties the county deems unsafe.

While Prince George's razed four houses total in the past six years, the county has demolished 10 houses and a 26-unit apartment building in fiscal 2013 alone.

Source: Prince George's County Department of Environmental Resources

Knock-down, drag-out
Number of homes demolished by Prince George's County:
Fiscal 2007 0
Fiscal 2008 1
Fiscal 2009 1
Fiscal 2010 1
Fiscal 2011 0
Fiscal 2012 1
Fiscal 2013 to date 10, plus 1 apartment building

"We have this tremendous inventory of vacant and abandoned houses -- some of them have been burned out, some are unsafe and uninhabitable," said Adam Ortiz, acting director of the Prince George's Department of Environmental Resources, which oversees demolitions. "Using the expedited process, owners are more responsive and take actions to address the properties."

The Prince George's housing market was brought to its knees by the foreclosure crisis, with the median home sale price dropping as low as $160,000 in 2011, less than half of what it was in 2006, according to RealEstate Business Intelligence. The county leads Maryland in the number of foreclosures.

Across the Potomac River, Prince William County was the hardest hit area in Northern Virginia. Manassas in particular was slammed even harder than Prince George's at the onset of the crisis -- the median home sale price in Manassas plunged from $363,272 in 2006 to $140,225 in 2009.

But while Prince William has rebounded, Prince George's officials have had to resort to bulldozing as hundreds of houses are foreclosed upon each month, a disparity experts say was caused by Virginia letting the foreclosure crisis play out while Maryland officials enacted laws that prolonged the process.

"Obviously, the county had some problems between '06 and '09," said Wally Covington, vice chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. "I think we stayed the course."

A quick foreclosure process means houses are dealt with quickly, and the market recovers faster, according to housing consultant Thomas Lawler, a former senior vice president at Washington mortgage giant Fannie Mae.

"It actually used to be a fast process, but Maryland has enacted various additions to the law that have extended the timeline," he said. "It's a several hundred days' difference."

Maryland requires mediation between homeowners and lenders and sets a relatively low bar for homeowners to request that the court delay a foreclosure.

"Prince William and Prince George's experienced very similar booms and similar busts," Lawler said. "In Prince William, the severity of the drop was much steeper, but they've recovered. Prince William prices look a lot better than Prince George's."

The flip side of Maryland's longer process is that there's more protection for homeowners that may not necessarily need to be foreclosed on, he added.

While Prince George's still leads Maryland in foreclosures, housing indicators are improving. The median sales price there jumped more than 6 percent to $170,000 in 2012, while houses spent an average of 88 days on the market in 2012, down from 102 the year before.

County officials are hoping the recent demolitions can help bring about a faster recovery -- or at least a few better-looking neighborhoods. While there's a 30-day waiting period during which the owner of the property can repair it or appeal the county's ruling, Ortiz said, most never do.

"In the past, going through the court process could take years," Ortiz said. "We're being very aggressive."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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Author:

Matt Connolly

Examiner Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner