Prince George's plan would increase demolitions of blighted foreclosures

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Local,Maryland,Matt Connolly,Prince Georges County

Prince George's County officials unveiled a new foreclosure action plan aimed at speeding up the demolition process after knocking down nearly 50 houses and apartment complexes so far this fiscal year.

No county in Maryland was hit harder by the foreclosure crisis than Prince George's. The median home sale in the county last year was $170,000, according to RealEstate Business Intelligence. That's a slight improvement over $160,000 in 2011, but still only about half of what it was in 2006.

"These vacant and abandoned homes are becoming more blighted and are dragging down the property values of their neighbors," said Adam Ortiz, acting director of the county's Department of Environmental Resources, which handles foreclosures. "We've got to move ahead and got to move ahead fast."

The county stepped up its fight earlier in the year when it began invoking a rule that allows officials to demolish any properties the county deems unsafe. There's a 30-day waiting period during which the homeowner can appeal, but only two so far have done so. The county has demolished 47 properties so far in fiscal year 2013, and has no plans to slow down anytime soon.

"We have another 38 in the queue," said Ortiz. "Some of them we pick up, but many of them are subject to complaints from the community."

Gwen Bowman, president of the Bradbury Heights Civic Association, said the policy was a welcome change. Bowman and her Capitol Heights neighbors had to deal with the drug use, prostitution and garbage dumping going on at 26 vacant apartments in the community before the county tore them down, she said.

"We would hear that things were going to happen, and then they wouldn't happen," said Bowman. "There was a total distrust."

As part of the action plan, the county is looking to create an administrative court in which a dedicated judge or board of appointed commissioners to decide on code issues. Ortiz said that some foreclosure cases have been in the court system for more than six years, while an expedited court process could see hearings held and decisions handed out once or twice a month.

The county would need state permission for such a major change -- Maryland's laws often delay foreclosures with the intention of protecting homeowners. Getting rid of foreclosed properties quickly lets the market adjust and rebound, according to Thomas Lawler, a former senior vice president at Washington mortgage giant Fannie Mae.

County officials are currently drafting legislation to that effect, Ortiz said, though the proposal might need state approval. For now, he added, Prince George's can keep knocking down homes that don't undergo appeals.

"It's not a glamorous policy issue, but it's a really big deal," he said. "The sheer amount of blighted homes is an anchor on our property values. That's where it gets personal."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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