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The Government called, "Mow your lawn!"

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Old 07-07-2008, 01:26 AM
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Default The Government called, "Mow your lawn!"

Reprinted without permission from The Columbus Dispatch July 6, 2008

Nobody's home
Flood of foreclosures means weeds are shooting up all over
Sunday, July 6, 2008 3:36 AM
By Jane Hawes


Brandon Walker of Walker Lawn Care mows down the tall grass behind a home on Fieldcrest Drive in Delaware. He was hired by the city to maintain the lawns of foreclosed properties, which is a growing business in Delaware and elsewhere.
DELAWARE, Ohio ** As Brandon Walker steered his riding mower toward knee-high grass that had engulfed the bottom of a backyard swing set, he passed an abandoned push mower in the garlic-mustard weeds along the side of the home.

The home on Delaware's east side is in foreclosure. Walker is one of two lawn-mowing contractors hired by the city to deal with the growing problem of out-of-control lawns at abandoned properties.

The city issued 160 citations in May for grass higher than 12 inches, about half on foreclosed properties. In all of 2007, there were 392 violations.

"We're not trying to be the grass police," said David Efland, Delaware's director of planning and community development, "but it's important to pay attention before it becomes a problem."

Unmowed lawns around vacant homes have become yet another symptom of the foreclosure crisis, and Delaware isn't the only community reporting a surge.

Throughout Delaware County, where foreclosures rose 85 percent between 2005 and 2007, property maintenance is becoming more of an issue. And in Columbus this year, lawn violations are up 14.5 percent from last year.

That increase is most likely due to the rate of foreclosures, said Cynthia Rickman, a spokeswoman for Columbus' Department of Development, which handles code enforcement.

Molly Mooney, Delaware's zoning code enforcement officer, said abandoned houses' neighbors often call to complain when the grass gets too high. Some will mow the lawns themselves.

That's what Josh Frame started doing when he realized his neighbors were gone for good. He was pleasantly surprised to see Walker doing the job recently.

"It just started looking pretty trashy," Frame said. "I wanted to keep the neighborhood looking nice."

This year, ReBuild Ohio, a consortium of local government and civic organizations, studied how abandoned properties affect a city. Looking at 25,000 vacant and abandoned properties in eight cities, the group calculated that these properties cost their communities $64 million in lost tax revenues and municipal-service expenses. Those services include code enforcement, maintenance, fire and police calls, boarding and demolition.

The cities, which included Columbus and Zanesville, were able to recoup only $486,000 of those costs.

Lenders who hold the mortgages for the foreclosed homes are responsible for their upkeep. Some banks pay third-party contractors to maintain the lawn and remove garbage.

"It's Chase's responsibility because ultimately we own the home, but it's not like the bank employees are going to do it," said Christine Holevas, a spokeswoman for JPMorgan Chase. "There are companies out there that are thriving in this market. If there is a home that has been empty for a month or couple months, we would ask the company to continually maintain the appearance. If it looks like there's no one there, there is a danger for vandalism, and no one wants that."

Even when banks take control of a property, it's often hard to find the person responsible for arranging upkeep at the empty home.

Cities try to recoup the money they spent caring for the home.

Delaware's two contractors mow lawns for an average $35 per hour. In Powell, Development Planner Eric Fischer said, the city has hired a part-time code-enforcement officer to handle the rising workload and has developed an escalating scale of charges for lawn mowing that tops out at $500 for the third offense and beyond.

"We end up mowing it and then liening the property," Fischer said.

Dispatch reporter Joey Nowak contributed to this story.
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Old 07-07-2008, 02:18 AM
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