July 27, 2011 [Lindsey Rupp, Bloomberg News]
Bank of America Corp. (BAC), faced with a glut of foreclosed and abandoned houses it can’t sell, has a new tool to get rid of the most decrepit ones: a bulldozer.
The biggest U.S. mortgage servicer will donate 100 foreclosed houses in the Cleveland area and in some cases contribute to their demolition in partnership with a local agency that manages blighted property. The bank has similar plans in Detroit and Chicago, with more cities to come, and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC), Citigroup Inc. (C), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and Fannie Mae are conducting or considering their own programs.
Disposing of repossessed homes is one of the biggest headaches for lenders in the U.S., where 1,679,125 houses, or one in every 77, were in some stage of foreclosure as of June, according to research firm RealtyTrac Inc. of Irvine, California. The prospect of those properties flooding the market has depressed prices and driven off buyers concerned that housing values will keep dropping.
“There is way too much supply,” said Gus Frangos, president of the Cleveland-based Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corp., which works with lenders, government officials and homeowners to salvage vacant homes. “The best thing we can do to stabilize the market is to get the garbage off.”
Bank of America had 40,000 foreclosures in the first quarter, saddling the Charlotte, North Carolina-based lender with taxes and maintenance costs. The bank announced the Cleveland program last month, has committed as many as 100 properties in Detroit and 150 in Chicago, and may add as many as nine cities by the end of the year, said Rick Simon, a company spokesman.
The lender will pay as much as $7,500 for demolition or $3,500 in areas eligible to receive funds through the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program. Uses for the land include development, open space and urban farming, according to the statement. Simon declined to say how many foreclosed properties Bank of America holds.
Ohio ranked among the top 10 states with the most foreclosure filings in June, according to RealtyTrac. The state has 71,617 foreclosed homes, Cuyahoga County 9,797 and Cleveland 6,778, RealtyTrac said.
The tear-downs are in varying states of disrepair, from uninhabitable to badly damaged. Simon said some are worth less than $10,000, and it would cost too much to make them livable.
“No one needs these homes, no one is going to buy them,” said Christopher Thornberg, founding partner at the Los Angeles office of Beacon Economics LLC, a forecasting firm. “Bank of America is not going to be able to cover its losses, so it might as well give them away and get a little write-off and some nice public relations.”
Donating a house may create an income-tax deduction, said Robert Willens, an independent accounting analyst based in New York. A bank might deduct as much as the fair market value if a home wasn’t acquired with the explicit intent of knocking it down, he said.
Wells Fargo and Fannie Mae already started donating houses and demolition funds in Ohio. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, the biggest U.S. home lender, gave 26 properties and $127,000 to the Cuyahoga land bank, said Russ Cross, Midwest regional servicing director for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. Since 2009, Wells Fargo made more than 800 donations, the bank said.
Fannie Mae, the mortgage-finance company operating under U.S. conservatorship, made its first deal with the Cuyahoga land bank in 2009, and sells houses to the organization at a “very nominal value,” or about $1 and an additional $200 in closing costs, said P.J. McCarthy, who heads alternative disposition programs.
Fannie Mae sold 200 foreclosures to the Cuyahoga organization in 2010 and has similar programs in Detroit and Chicago. Cleveland is the only city where Washington-based Fannie Mae contributes $3,500 toward demolition, McCarthy said.
“It’s an economically justifiable transaction,” McCarthy said. “Holding on to a property that might sell for $1,000 or $2,000 or $5,000 for several hundred days is not in anybody’s best interest.”
JPMorgan, the second-biggest U.S. bank, has donated or sold at a discount almost 1,900 properties valued at more than $100 million in more than 37 states since late 2008, including 22 in Cleveland, said Jim O’Donnell, manager of community revitalization. The majority aren’t demolished, he said.
Citigroup has been donating foreclosures since 2008 through the National Community Stabilization Trust, according to an e- mailed statement from Natalie Abatemarco, managing director for the bank’s office of homeownership preservation. The New York- based company, ranked third among U.S. lenders, is part of the Washington-based nonprofit trust’s pilot program that starts in late August to provide funds for purchases in distressed neighborhoods, and the money can be used toward demolition, Abatemarco said.
Demolishing all of Cleveland’s foreclosed and abandoned properties might cost $250 million, Frangos said. There are as many as 13,000, according to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and Neighborhood Progress Inc., a nonprofit organization working to counter the effects of foreclosures in six Cleveland areas, according to its website. The Cuyahoga County land bank owns about 899 properties and will demolish about 700 in the next six to seven months, Frangos said.
Blow Them Up
The oversupply of homes once prompted Warren Buffett, chairman and chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK/A), to quip in February 2010 that one solution was to “blow up a lot of houses — a tactic similar to the destruction of autos that occurred with the ‘cash-for-clunkers’ program.’”
Still, the knockdowns aren’t likely to outpace foreclosures, said Rick Sharga, RealtyTrac’s senior vice president. Foreclosures may accelerate as banks clear a backlog caused by soft real estate markets and legal disputes over tactics used to seize homes.
“These sorts of programs will basically only be nibbling on the edges,” Sharga said.