Out-of-control growth

The weeds are so high at 615 W. 13th St. in Tyrone that neighbor Rich Gergely said he could hide in them if he wanted to. And he suspects rodents and other vermin have moved in.

“It’s a health problem right now,” he declared angrily at a July 8 Borough Council meeting, telling Mayor Bill Fink that he gave Gergely his word months ago that something would be done.

“Is your word your bond?” he asked. “When you tell somebody something, can I trust you? Believe in you?”

It’s a complaint that comes before municipal councils often: someone’s neighbor hasn’t cut the grass, the yard looks bad and the complainant wants someone to do something about it.

In Gergely’s case, the homeowner is in jail, said Police Chief John Romeo, and borough officials said it’s unclear whether the homeowner still controls the property or whether it’s in the process of foreclosure.

Owner’s responsibility

When dealing with foreclosed homes and vacant lots, whether a township or borough is willing to respond depends largely on the state of its budget, a property’s value and whether the government is likely to be compensated for time and money spent there.

Greenfield Township Police Chief Ronald Givler said in his experience, most people take pride in their homes.

“We have some problem places,” he said, “and when those subjects come up, we deal with them as best we can.”

People often respond quickly to an ordinance-violation notice, Givler said, but it’s harder dealing with foreclosed or abandoned homes.

“The banks are the biggest problem,” he said, because although the bank bought the house, “until the property itself is transferred out of the prior owner’s name, the prior owner is still responsible.”

Givler said he understands foreclosure is a lengthy process, but people shouldn’t have to be reminded to care for their homes while they still own them.

Hollidaysburg Borough Manager Mark Schroyer said many out-of-state banks, most of which are in Texas and California, don’t work quickly enough to contract with a local real-estate agency to care for a foreclosed home during the transition period.

Until a bank makes a deal with a local landscaper, Hollidaysburg borough workers “will go in to clean up the property” so it doesn’t become a nuisance, he said.

Hollidaysburg then bills the bank for the work, and more often than not is reimbursed for its services.

“We’re very fortunate in Hollidaysburg,” Schroyer said, because foreclosures and their related problems are rare.

Bucking national trends

Nationwide, foreclosures are becoming less of a problem.

According to RealtyTrac, a national foreclosure-tracking website, there were 23 percent fewer foreclosure filings, including default notices, auction schedulings and bank repossessions, in the first half of 2013 as there were in the first half of 2012.

But despite an improving national market, Pennsylvania is one of few states that has seen an increase, with bank repossessions up 41 percent from last year.

“Pennsylvania is definitely bucking the national trend,” said RealtyTrac Vice President Daren Blomquist, “but I think there’s one specific reason behind that.”

A foreclosure in the commonwealth takes, on average, 617 days to complete, he said, up from last year’s 554-day average and well above the national 477-day average.

That gives Pennsylvania the 12-longest foreclosure completion time in the country, and it’s why here, as in any other states with long foreclosure processes, the housing market is lagging behind in recovery, Blomquist said.

In addition, he said, state budget cuts in 2011 effectively killed a longstanding loan-service program that helped unemployed homeowners to keep making mortgage payments.

Without that funding, the full force of the 2006 mortgage crisis and 2008 housing-bubble burst hit, he said.

Catching up

with the market

Locally, Blair County has had wavering foreclosure numbers, which averaged zero to two per quarter until 2009, when the number jumped from two to 13 in the third quarter.

Then in 2010, foreclosures spiked at 26 in the third quarter, averaging 16 per quarter overall that year.

Foreclosure rates have been irregular since, averaging five per quarter in 2011, 10 per quarter in 2012 and eight per quarter so far this year.

But analyzing county-by-county data can be difficult, Blomquist said, especially because an area like Blair that has comparatively few foreclosures can see its percentages jump and shrink based on a difference of only one or two homes.

Looking at the larger picture of statewide data, he said that an increase in foreclosures shows the market catching up.

“This is a pig in the python type of deal,” Blomquist said, “where we’re seeing … Pennsylvania catch up” with foreclosures.

“That does indicate that there’s a light in the end of the tunnel,” he said.

The downside is that it will continue to affect the current market, and Blomquist expects more homes will be listed in the coming months once those properties finish the foreclosure process.

However, he added, he believes the state eventually will catch up with national real estate market growth, even if it takes longer than expected.

Playing the

waiting game

For nearly two years Rolling Rock Motel along Old Route 22 in Juniata Township has stood vacant, with grass and weeds growing out of control and thieves having robbed the building of its copper pipes, air-conditioning units and TVs.

About a year ago, officials went through and sealed all the windows and doors to prevent break-ins, Township Chairman David Kane said.

“We locked down everything,” he said, “and we check it every month.”

But even though the property is abandoned, there’s nothing else that the township can do legally while its owner continues to pay taxes.

“I don’t want to go in and clean it up,” he said, and township officials aren’t going to keep up with mowing while its owner still holds the deed. There already are a number of liens against the property, Kane said.

He admitted that the property is an eyesore and a mess, but officials are waiting in the hope that its owner will either put Rolling Rock up for sale or stop paying taxes, giving them an excuse to put it up for sheriff sale themselves.

Even then, a potential buyer isn’t likely to go for Rolling Rock the first time around, Kane said, because of its outstanding liens.

“I think [the owner owes] Penelec like, $16,000,” Kane said.

An unsatisfying answer

Gergely made a final plea with Tyrone officials that evening, telling them that his wife, Cathy, is allergic to some of the plants in his neighbor’s yard, which makes spending time in their own backyard difficult.

He said calling health department workers and local politicians has yielded no results.

Solicitor Larry Clapper told council when a property becomes a public nuisance, they have the authority to intervene.

“[But] we don’t want to be in the business of cutting weeds,” he said, adding that the borough might lose money if the property goes to a tax sale, which has happened in the past.

Councilmen Terry Richardson suggested Gergely should have cut back the weeds himself and said “everybody in town who’s got an empty house [next door] is going to want their grass cut” if the borough helped him.

“So nothing’s going to be done, right?” Gergely said.

Mirror Staff Writer Kelly Cernetich is at 946-7520