Increasing Number of Abandoned Homes in Tennessee a Problem

June 21, 2011

Officials in Washington County are trying to decide the best way to deal with the growing number of abandoned homes.

Of particular concern to officials is that property owners could stop caring for the upkeep of the property and the chore would fall to county workers, according to the Johnson City Press.

The problem in the East Tennessee county isn’t unique.

County Attorney John Rambo told commissioners recently that the problem has spread “all across the state of Tennessee and it’s only compounded by the housing crisis.”

Washington County currently has more than 70 properties being reviewed for violations.

Washington County zoning administrator Mike Rutherford said sometimes local governments have to step in and pay the bill to clean up abandoned properties, including an increasing number of foreclosures, so they don’t become unsafe for surrounding neighbors. That often includes boarding up doors and windows and cleaning the yard.

Rutherford said sometimes the property is so dilapidated that it has to be demolished. He said counties have little control over cleanup costs due to state laws prohibiting county employees from using county equipment on private property.

Rutherford said one abandoned property in Washington County had coyotes living in it, which posed a threat to neighbors and children. He said the property had been in foreclosure, but the mortgage holder decided to drop the claim rather than pay for the cleanup after being contacted by the county.

Banks don’t have to notify borrowers and communities when they decide to abandon a foreclosure, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. That leaves some people not knowing that they still own a home and are responsible for any cleanup debt, taxes and maintenance.

The law requires the county to try to give property owners notice of any zoning violations, and Rutherford said that includes sending at least one letter to the last known address of the property owner and posting a notice on the property.

Still, he says there’s no guarantee that the county will recoup money spent on cleaning an abandoned property.

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