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How to fix South Jersey’s ‘toxic’ foreclosure crisis

"To prevent further damage to our neighborhoods and communities," a new report suggests ideas ranging from creating a revolving loan fund to buy bank-owned homes and turn them into affordable housing to calling for the state to address high property taxes.

Houses in foreclosure can have a "negative impact on neighborhoods, undermining quality of life and diminishing the value of neighboring properties," concludes a October report from the Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University-Camden.
Houses in foreclosure can have a "negative impact on neighborhoods, undermining quality of life and diminishing the value of neighboring properties," concludes a October report from the Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers University-Camden.Read moreSTAFF

New Jersey's foreclosure crisis has hit the southern part of the state especially hard, impacting entire communities through lower home values, higher property taxes, and a lack of homes available for first-time buyers and working-class families, and affecting the region's economy.

A report released in late October by the Sen. Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs at Rutgers-Camden suggests a combination of strategies the Legislature, nonprofits, and the private sector could use "to prevent further damage to our neighborhoods and communities" from what it calls a longstanding problem. These range from the innovative — creating a revolving loan fund for South Jersey housing to provide funds for buying bank-owned homes and turning them into affordable housing — to a call for the state to address the thorny problem of high property taxes.

"Through such efforts, these 'toxic liabilities' can become community assets by repurposing them as residential properties and fulfilling a demand for affordable workforce housing," said Darren Spielman, executive director of the Rand Institute, which produced the report in partnership with Land Dimensions, a Glassboro engineering firm, and the Financial Wellness Institute, a Deptford-based nonprofit financial education organization.

The large numbers of foreclosures in South Jersey are just part of a problem that includes and affects a host of other issues, from low wages to a lagging recovery from the recession, the report concludes.

"Since the Great Recession of 2008, an unprecedented number of distressed foreclosed properties continue to weigh down the South Jersey region, far exceeding rates across the country," the report states. "These residential properties have a negative impact on neighborhoods, undermining quality of life and diminishing the value of neighboring properties. While some vacant, abandoned and REO properties are well maintained, many are not, exacerbating housing issues in communities across the region."

Six of the eight South Jersey counties had among the highest foreclosure rates in the state as of May 2018, led by Atlantic County, where one of every 395 homes was in foreclosure, according to the report. The rates in Burlington, Camden, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties were also higher than the state average of one in 639 homes. By comparison, the national rate was roughly three times better, with just one of every 1,835 homes in foreclosure. And the same six counties are home to close to 13,000 distressed properties, or more than a third of those in the state.

The report places much of the blame for the large number of foreclosures on the length of time the process takes in the state. It looked at 78 properties and found that it took on average 5.3 years for these to move through the foreclosure process, with one taking as long as nine years. Many of these date to the start of the recession, when the collapse in the housing market created a huge caseload. Reforming this process to minimize the amount of time a home sits vacant is one of the report's recommendations.

In New Jersey, foreclosure is a judicial process that is meant to balance the rights of property owners with those of the banks that hold mortgages and servicers that process the payments. The laws and rules governing it include specific time frames. When the crisis hit, New Jersey instituted a number of practices to try to keep the process moving while also ensuring fairness.

Pete McAleer, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said  the court system has reduced the amount of time a case is before a judge to less than six months. Delays can come from the time it takes to schedule and conduct a sheriff's sale.

"The average time frame for the court's involvement in the foreclosure process, from complaint to judgment, has decreased from a peak of 1,360 days to 160 days for the most recent 2017-18 court year," McAleer said.

He added that only contested cases, about 20 percent of the total, are reviewed by a judge. The Superior Court Clerk's Office in Trenton processes all uncontested foreclosures administratively, and "there is no bottleneck from that process," McAleer said.

"The longer a house is in foreclosure, the more likely the house is to lose value and adversely affect the value of neighboring properties as well as the surrounding community," the Rand report stated, noting that of the 78 homes analyzed for its report, the average home value dropped by 51 percent, the property tax increased by 19 percent, and the community's tax rate increased by 9 percent.

Entry-level home buyers and middle-income families are unable to compete with investors looking to buy foreclosed homes owned by lenders, and that hurts the region's housing market, the report found.

These issues are part of a broader housing problem affecting South Jersey, where the median household income is lower and the poverty rate is higher than the state as a whole. Households also face large housing burdens, with more than 57 percent of renters and 42 percent of homeowners in the six high-foreclosure counties paying more than 30 percent of income on rent.

Overall, the report states, "historically, home building has been an economic driver in South Jersey. The home building industry in New Jersey has not recovered from the collapse of the real estate market."

Theresa DiVietro, a founding principal of Land Dimensions, said much of the South Jersey economy was driven by new home construction before the recession, as homes fed growth in the commercial and retail sectors, and the collapse of the housing market created a cycle that has hurt individuals, businesses, and the economy as a whole.

"Without a strong economic base, and no need to build new housing to the extent that we experienced for almost 40 years, one of our most previous thriving industries is lackluster," she said. "Job creation is now as a result of eds and meds, as well as tourism and the arts. And our workforce that is comprised of schoolteachers, firefighters, bank tellers, nurses, bus drivers, retail clerks and municipal employees does not have an easy time of keeping up with the high cost of living in a very expensive state."

Addressing the high costs in the state, most notably property taxes, is among 10 recommendations in the report. Spielman noted that the state relies on local taxes more than any other in the nation and that more than half the average property-tax bill pays for education. The report said the reluctance of municipalities to merge or share services also hurts taxpayers.

"Issues pertaining to housing affordability, low home-ownership rates and the strain these issues have on the local economy are not going away without intentional intervention," the report states.

One of the creative solutions called for is finding a way to "acquire and rehabilitate vacant and abandoned properties, and repurpose these properties for owner occupancy or rental." The proposed New Jersey Residential Foreclosure Transformation Act (Senate Bill 1584), which would do just that, has begun moving through the Legislature.

Another proposal calls for the creation of a South Jersey Revolving Loan Fund. To be managed by a regional foundation, the fund would accept contributions from lenders, philanthropists, businesses and others, and provide loans to nonprofit organizations to acquire and rehabilitate real-estate-owned, abandoned, and vacant properties, and turn them into affordable entry-level and workforce housing.

The report also suggests that the state enact legislation to create land banks — governmental entities or nonprofit corporations that would focus on converting vacant, abandoned, and tax-delinquent properties to productive uses.