Ritter promotes bill to fill empty houses

By Scot Kersgaard

In an effort to reduce the number of houses sitting empty and abandoned in Colorado, on Tuesday Gov. Bill Ritter announced plans for a bill designed to reduce the length of time it takes to foreclose on some houses.

Gov. Bill Ritter addresses the media and local government officials Tuesday in the parking lot of Clements Community Center in Lakewood.
Photo by Scot Kersgaard/The Colorado Statesman

The media conference also featured the three Democratic lawmakers who will introduce the legislation, each of whom represents a district hard-hit by the foreclosure crisis: Rep. Jeanne Labuda, whose district includes Sheridan and southwest Denver; Rep. Dianne Primavera, whose district includes Broomfield, Superior, Erie and Westminster; and Sen. Mike Johnston, whose district includes northeast Denver.

Currently, the owner of a house in foreclosure has at least four months to work with a lender to find possible ways to keep the house, and the proposed bill wouldn’t change that if the house is occupied or if the owner is still working to keep it.

However, if a house has been abandoned, the proposed legislation would allow the lending institution to take title in as little as two months.

“Before, we didn’t discriminate between abandoned and non-abandoned properties,” Ritter said. “When someone moves out and abandons their property, there is no reason not to speed the process up.”

Ritter said abandoned properties have a terrible impact on neighborhoods, dragging down property values as they become safety hazards for children and magnets for criminal activity.

Colorado has been one of the states hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, and foreclosure rates remain high. Ritter said helping people keep their homes and avoid foreclosure remains the state’s top priority. He acknowledged, however, that avoiding foreclosure won’t always be possible, and said that the next step is to move quickly to get abandoned houses back on the market, sold and occupied.

“When I walk through my neighborhood and see foreclosed and abandoned properties, I am sad,” Primavera said.

“I know there was an owner in that property who obviously struggled, probably on many levels, to keep their home. But I am also concerned for the neighbors who still live there.”

Johnston said most people are fighting hard to pay their mortgages and bills, and continue to maintain their neighborhoods and communities, but their hard work goes to waste if nearby houses are abandoned.

He said he got a call from a constituent who said she was working very hard to pay her mortgage and maintain her home, but she lives across the street from an abandoned house where the windows and doors have been knocked out and an open-air drug market has emerged. Johnston said there is no way people can improve or even maintain their own properties when there is something like that on their block.

“We have protections in place now to help people keep their homes,” Johnston said. “This is the next step to stop what we now know as the ‘Broken Window Theory,’ which is that homes with broken windows or doors become havens for criminal behavior. It is not good for neighborhoods and not safe for kids.”

Ritter said the ability to cure is part of the process.

“You want to give people the ability to cure, but the need for that is obviated when someone moves out and abandons. If people give up and move out, then there is no longer a need to give them more time. There is no reason not to move quickly once a house is abandoned.”

He said he did not expect much opposition to the bill, but “we know in that building we work in, there is opposition around every corner. So we’ll see what happens. Everyone should agree this is the right thing to do for neighborhoods. It shouldn’t take seven to nine months to get a house sold and occupied.”

“One or two bad homes on a block can certainly destroy a neighborhood,” Labuda agreed. “This legislation will get homes more quickly occupied.”