The city of Las Vegas, the epicenter for squatters, was the first to pass a bill making lenders responsible for vacant homes in limbo because the foreclosure process hasn’t been finalized.
The city approved a vacant property registry on Dec. 7, 2011, and as of this week, there are 2,230 homes on the registry. By registering the homes, officials can quickly contact people when there are problems.
While pinpointing homes with squatters wasn’t the main reason for the ordinance, it’s a side benefit, because monthly inspections are required under the ordinance. The inspections should show if someone is living in a supposedly vacant home.
Since the city passed its ordinance, other local governments have followed. The county has 1,595 vacant homes on its registry. North Las Vegas has 269 homes on its registry. Henderson is considering an ordinance.
City Attorney Brad Jerbic said so far the vacant property ordinance, which is based on Chicago’s ordinance, has yet to be challenged in court. “They’ve had over a year to challenge it, and they haven’t challenged it.”
He doesn’t see any need for legislative action, unless there is a court challenge.
The bill, sponsored by City Councilman Steve Ross, is designed to reduce the blight and deterioration of properties in foreclosure caused by lack of maintenance.
Whoever holds the mortgage to a vacant house in foreclosure, whether a bank or a private lender, must register the property with the city’s Department of Building and Safety. The fee is $200 for each initial property registration and $50 to change the contact information.
A licensed property manager must be hired by the lender to inspect the property monthly.
Presumably, since the lender knows whether the property is vacant, the property manager ought to be able to spot signs of a squatter. If squatters are seen, then Las Vegas police can take steps to oust them.
The ordinance, which applies only to the first mortgage holder, requires that landscaping be maintained by the banks and lenders.
If the ordinance is violated, the penalty includes misdemeanor criminal prosecution as well as civil actions. That could prompt a court challenge, Jerbic said.
The Nevada Bankers Association objected to the criminal aspect, saying it didn’t want to see any banking executive facing criminal charges. So far, cooperation by banks has been good and no bankers are behind bars.
However, the city hasn’t taken any steps to prosecute anyone for failing to register and monitor a property or clean it up.
“Prior to this registration, we’d get complaints about vacant houses and we had to do hours of research, looking up deeds and calling places like Chicago and New York to try and find the right person. It just killed us,” said Mike Bouse, a code enforcement manager for the city. “Now, we get a complaint and in a matter of minutes we can be on the phone with the right person. It’s an incredible time saver for us.”
While my Thursday and Saturday columns focused on squatters, Bouse said the most serious complaints the city receives involve abandoned buildings being broken into by kids and green pools, both safety hazards. The most frequent complaints? Trash and weeds.
The registry lists can be shared with police and utility companies. Squatters find vacant properties, go to the utility companies and present falsified rental agreements. With the registry, the utility can quickly check the list and call the property manager to find out if the property has really been leased.
Anyone furious about a neighboring vacant home’s dead landscaping or the suspicion that a home has been overtaken by squatters can call the jurisdiction they live in. With the registry, code enforcement officials have a more efficient tool to make the remedy move faster.
Except Henderson, of course. For now.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0275.