Roxann Pais, an executive assistant city attorney in the Dallas City Attorney's Office, describes how prosecutors across the U.S. are responding to the crisis in foreclosed and vacant properties.
This is a transcript.
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi. This is Rob Wolf, director of communications at the Center for Court Innovation. Welcome to another New Thinking podcast. I’m here with Roxann Pais, who is the executive assistant city attorney with the Dallas City Attorney’s Office and the special assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas. And she and I have both been in Washington a few days before President-elect Obama’s inauguration—but that’s not why we’re here—to discuss mortgage fraud and the foreclosure crisis and how they are affecting communities and what law enforcement, prosecutors and police can possibly do about it. Roxann, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.
ROXANN PAIS: Absolutely, Rob. How are you doing today?
WOLF: I’m doing great.
PAIS: We have some friends here in Washington.
WOLF: Yeah, we have. It’s been very interesting. I’ve learned a lot.
PAIS: It’s been so exciting to be able to see people so passionate about their work and the hope of a new era.
WOLF: You know, when I think of foreclosures, I associate that within a problem for individuals who are perhaps having problems paying their mortgage and with the banks. Tell my why prosecutors should be interested in foreclosures and why you and the Dallas City Attorney’s Office have become interested in it.
PAIS: The prosecutors are in the business of ensuring that quality of life is improved in their neighborhoods. They are in the business of reducing crime and prosecuting crime. They are in the business of making sure that justice is served to the fullest extent possible under our laws.
If you take a look at the mortgage crisis, the foreclosure crisis, what you’ll find is that this results in vacancy of structures on blocks. And typically, these vacancies are occurring in some of the most crime-ridden, poorest neighborhoods in our country. And as a result, crime begins to flourish with vacancy. Austin, Texas did a study where they found a block that had a vacant structure on it had crime two times more than a block next door that didn’t have a vacant structure on it. So you could imagine the cost that police incur in addressing crime with vacant structures on the block.
WOLF: What kinds of crimes are we talking about?
PAIS: The drug dealing, the gangs. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that about 6,000 firefighters are injured every year just to put out fires in these abandoned vacant structures. There’s been a lot of talk about domestic violence increases as a result of the foreclosure crisis and the stress that it has placed on families. There’s been talk about juvenile delinquency and the amount of pressure that it’s putting on children who are being torn from their neighborhoods and put somewhere else where they don’t know anyone.
WOLF: And is it true that if you have a vacant property that that can lead, that can generate more vacant properties?
PAIS: It’s an extreme domino effect and it can lead to potentially serious, serious problems not only resulting in crime but even in city budgets, for example. We have a vacant structure. The value of the property is less than if it was occupied. So when cities have lower property values, their tax base is lost. And when they have a lost tax base, the municipal budgets are lower than they were in the preceding year. When you have a lower budget, municipal budget, you have less services, such as police and fire services.
WOLF: Well, so tell me, what can prosecutors do in response to this crisis and to prevent this crisis?
PAIS: I’ve had the great opportunity to actually look across America and study various jurisdictions to see what they’re doing. It’s important as we discuss a holistic approach to solving problems that we look at making sure that a jurisdiction has prevention methods to prevent foreclosed or vacant structures, that they have enforcement methods, and that they have a plan to reuse the property. And I’ve studied probably 80 different jurisdictions and have come up with about 80 different ideas on how to attack the problem through prevention, enforcement and reuse methods.
WOLF: Wow. And so, there is a lot going on.
PAIS: Prevention methods, for example: we have jurisdictions that are having to hire vacant property coordinators because there’s really not a sophisticated method in place for municipalities or districts or counties to identify where vacant structures are located. So they’re actually having to be pretty sophisticated in terms of gathering information from their fire inspectors, their code inspectors, the U.S. Post Office.
WOLF: So you’re saying they hire a coordinator who then specializes in this because …
WOLF: Prior to this crisis, they didn’t know even where to begin to …
WOLF: To identify where these properties were let alone what to do with them.
PAIS: Some creatively are even looking at the foreclosure dockets [to] identify where the vacant structures are located and being foreclosed on. Some are actually looking in the newspaper to get identification of the structures that are being foreclosed upon and their public notice.
WOLF: In the legal notices. And what do they do when they identify, you know, so they know where the properties are?
PAIS: Well, a lot of these vacant structures that have been foreclosed are actually owned by the banks. And many banks are not taking care of their properties. So prosecutors are beginning to hold the property owners, which are the banks, responsible for making sure that those properties meet minimum housing standards and are boarded up and secured so that we can avoid any kind of violent crime occurring on the property.
In terms of enforcement, many jurisdictions around the country—and I would say Chicago, Illinois is leading this effort; Dallas, Texas also just recently passed one—there’s an ordinance called the Vacant Registration Ordinance, and this is where the municipality places the burden on the property owner of the vacant structure to register the vacant structure with the city. They usually have to pay some sort of registration fee and they have to file an application that identifies all the information that a city would need to know to contact the vacant structure owner if there are any problems on the property.
WOLF: Because this is not information that is readily available?
PAIS: Correct. Usually, there are also very specific ordinance requirements for these vacant structure registration ordinances. Many cities are requiring these property owners to have security lighting or alarm systems or fire sprinkler systems as a way to encourage public safety and discourage vacancy. Some jurisdictions are actually even requiring vacant liability insurance so that if you have a vacant structure, they’re going to mandate that it be insured. And many jurisdictions have gotten really creative on their reuse methods. And some cities are actually taking vacant lots and selling them at a very nominal price. For example, Columbus, Ohio can sell their vacant lot for $500, but they enter into an agreement with the purchaser that they’re going to do certain things to that property to improve the development in that neighborhood. And if the property owner doesn’t comply with that agreement, the property reverts back to the city.
Other jurisdictions, for example, have a side yard program. These may actually be properties where the vacant land is too small to redevelop. And so, they offer the lot to the neighboring property at a very nominal price so long as they keep it up..
WOLF: So someone who – a non-vacant owner who is responsibly taking care of their property can then annex this side yard as long as they are committed to maintaining it.
PAIS: Sure. And other jurisdictions are even becoming more green and allowing non-profits and neighborhood association groups to purchase land for a dollar as long as they turn it into some sort of garden.
PAIS: For beautification purposes. There have been other very creative methods. Some non-profit organizations are actually purchasing the land and house, and they keep the land and sell the house so it makes the house sale more affordable for people to buy. The creativity involved among prosecutors and those at the table working with them is pretty phenomenal.
WOLF: It sounds like – it sounds very encouraging. It sounds like there’s a lot of good ideas out there to respond to this what is now a growing crisis. I want to thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.
PAIS: In Washington D.C.
WOLF: In Washington D.C. I have been talking to Roxann Pais, an executive assistant city attorney and special assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas. Thank you so much. This is Rob Wolf. Thank you all for listening