Five years ago, Keller, 10 months behind on his mortgage payments, received notice of a foreclosure judgment from JP Morgan Chase. In a few weeks, the bank said, his three-story house with gray vinyl siding in Columbus, Ohio, would be put up for auction at a sheriff’s sale.
The 58-year-old former social worker and his wife, Jennifer, packed up their home of 13 years and moved in with their daughter. Joseph thought he would never have anything to do with the house again. And for about a year, he didn’t.
Then it started to stalk him.
First, in 2010, the county sued Keller because the house, already picked clean by scavengers, was in a shambles, its hanging gutters and collapsed garage in violation of local housing code. Then the tax collector started sending Keller notices about mounting back taxes, sewer fees and bills for weed and waste removal. And last year, Chase’s debt collector began pressing Keller to pay his mortgage, which had swollen, with penalties and fees, from $62,100.27 to $84,194.69.
The worst news came last January, when the Social Security Administration rejected Keller’s application for disability benefits; the “asset” on Avondale Avenue rendered him ineligible. Keller’s medical problems include advanced liver disease, hepatitis C and inactive tuberculosis. Without disability coverage, he can’t get the liver transplant he needs to stay alive.
“I can’t make it end,” says Keller. “This house, I can’t get out.”
Keller continues to bear responsibility for the house because on December 23, 2008 – about two months after he received Chase’s notice of sale – the bank filed to dismiss the foreclosure judgment and the order of sale. Chase said it sent Keller a copy of its court filing on December 9, 2008. Keller says he never received any notification. Either way, his name remained on the property title.
The Kellers are caught up in a little-known horror of the U.S. housing bust: the zombie title. Six years in, thousands of homeowners are finding themselves legally liable for houses they didn’t know they still owned after banks decided it wasn’t worth their while to complete foreclosures on them. With impunity, banks have been walking away from foreclosures much the way some homeowners walked away from their mortgages when the housing market first crashed.
“The banks are just deciding not to foreclose, even though the homeowners never caught up with their payments,” says Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, a real-estate information company in Irvine, California.
Since 2006, 10 million homes have fallen into foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac, a number that in earlier, more stable times would have taken nearly two decades to reach. Of those foreclosures, more than 2 million have never come out. Some may be occupied by owners who have been living gratis. Others have been caught up in what is now known as the robo-signing scandal, when banks spun out reams of fraudulent documents to foreclose quickly on as many homeowners as they could.
And then there are cases like the Kellers, in which homeowners moved out after receiving notice of a foreclosure sale, thinking they were leaving the house in bank hands. No national databases track zombie titles. But dozens of housing court judges, code enforcement officials, lawyers and other professionals involved in foreclosures across the country tell Reuters that these titles number in the many thousands, and that the problem is worsening.
“There are thousands of foreclosures in limbo, just hanging out there, just sitting, with nothing being done,” says Cleveland Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka, whose pending court cases tied to derelict properties have doubled in the past two years, to 1,000. He says the surge is due largely to homes vacated by people who fled before an imminent foreclosure sale, only to learn later that they remain legally responsible for their house.
When people move out after receiving a notice of a planned foreclosure sale and the bank then cancels, municipalities are left to deal with the mess. Some spend public funds on securing, cleaning and stabilizing houses that generate no tax revenue. Others let the houses rot. In at least three states in recent months, houses abandoned by owners and banks alike have exploded because the gas was never shut off.
THREAT OF JAIL
Unsuspecting homeowners have had their wages garnished, their credit destroyed and their tax refunds seized. They’ve opened their mail to find bills for back taxes, graffiti-scrubbing services, demolition crews, trash removal, gutter repair, exterior cleaning and lawn clipping. At their front doors they’ve encountered bailiffs brandishing summonses to appear in court.
In some cities, people with zombie titles can be sentenced to probation – with the threat of jail if they don’t bring their houses into compliance.
“These people have become like indentured serfs, with all of the responsibilities for the properties but none of the rights,” says retired Cleveland-Marshall College of Law Professor Kermit Lind.
Banks used to almost always follow through with foreclosures, either repossessing a house outright — known in industry parlance as REO, for real estate owned — or putting it up for auction at a sheriff’s sale. The bank sent a letter notifying the homeowner of an impending foreclosure sale, the homeowner moved out, the house was sold, and the bank applied the proceeds toward the unpaid portion of the original mortgage.
That has changed since the housing crash. Financial institutions have realized that following through on sales of decaying houses in markets swamped with foreclosures may not yield anything close to what is owed on them.
By walking away, banks can at least reap the insurance, tax and accounting benefits from documenting the loss — without having to take on any of the costs and responsibilities of ownership, according to a 2010 Federal Reserve paper. A walk-away also enables them to “sell the unpaid debt to debt collectors, sometimes noting to the court that the loan has been charged off,” according to a Case Western Reserve University study released in 2011.
No regulations require that banks let homeowners know when they change their minds about a foreclosure. So they rarely do, according to housing court judges, homeowners’ lawyers and academics who study foreclosure problems. “The banks do not answer inquiries, they do not answer phone calls, they do not answer letters,” says Judge Patrick Carney of the Buffalo, New York, Housing Court. His zombie-title caseload has swollen in the past few years to well into the hundreds. “The whole situation is surreal,” he says.
CLEAN UP OR ELSE
Marlon Sheafe, a 55-year-old who drove trucks for Sara Lee Corp for 25 years, was sentenced to probation in May. The citation from the Cleveland Housing Court says that if he doesn’t fix the problems with the investment property he bought in 2005, the grandfather of three, who suffers from advanced cancer, will go to jail in May 2014.
Ocwen Financial Corp, the servicer of Sheafe’s mortgage, foreclosed on the house in 2008, when Sheafe was hospitalized with congestive heart failure and later lost his job, forcing him into default. That was the last he heard about the house until a year and a half ago, when he received a summons to appear in Cleveland Housing Court for code infractions on the property: cracked steps, shredded siding, weeds as tall as the doors. There was also a $300 lawn-mowing bill.
A few weeks later, Sheafe appeared at the drab, brown-paneled chambers of the Cleveland Housing Court, packed, as it is every Tuesday and Thursday lately, with other people in his situation. Sheafe expected his appearance that day would clear up what he thought was a big mistake. Instead he left with the order to get the house up to code.
Sheafe started visiting the tall, crooked house every week. Looters had stripped the place bare. The “dope boys” had left their sneakers on the porch and their empty cans of sausages strewn around inside. Sheafe repaired the steps and spray-painted patches of the exterior where the vinyl siding had been ripped off. He returned every week to check on the house and mow the lawn.
While Sheafe worked on the house, Judge Pianka worked on the mortgage servicer, subpoenaing Ocwen to appear in court. In February, Ocwen released its lien on the house, which Sheafe hoped would enable him to donate it to the local land bank – one of many set up by local governments in recent years to manage abandoned properties.
But Sheafe still can’t shake free of the house. The county sold his tax lien to a debt collector, which is now suing Sheafe for foreclosure. He also faces $4,185 for code violations, $185 for court costs and up to $10,000 if the city is forced to tear down the house.
“There’s no end to this,” Sheafe says. “I can’t win.”
Asked to comment, Ocwen issued a statement saying: “It is Ocwen’s policy not to disclose details about specific customers. In this case, Ocwen has attempted to work with the borrower over a four-year period. Ocwen offered to settle the account with the borrower but never received a response to the offer.”
Sheafe says he couldn’t afford the amount Ocwen proposed in its settlement offer.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency established in the wake of the financial crisis to guard against predatory lending and other abuses, declined to comment for this article.