California city holds banks responsible for upkeep of foreclosed homes

Indio, California, is one of many cities determined to fight the plague of abandoned and pillaged properties in that trademark of the current recession, the ghost neighborhood. According to The Wall Street Journal, the town, struggling with an abandoned property rate in excess of 10 percent, passed a law holding banks responsible for the maintenance of homes they have repossessed. Failure to comply carries a criminal misdemeanor charge.

The destruction of empty homes by criminals looking for copper, fixtures, and anything else of value to fence has been a tragic consequence of the mortgage-backed security crisis. Where once the banker who loaned money for the purchase of a home drove past that home every day on the way to work, now the owner or owners of that home may be on the other side of the earth. Without anyone to watch an empty house, its six-figure value can quickly dissolve into a pile of rubble that will cost five figures to haul away.

While most towns use the lever of tax liens to motivate title holders, Indio's law could land transgressors in criminal court. It's fun to imagine a bank official in handcuffs taking a perp walk for aiding and abetting rats and mold.

Citigroup (C) was the first to experience the sting of the Indio legislation. The city levied a $3,450 fine after discovering a swimming pool choked with algae at one of the bank-repossessed homes. The threat of similar fines has motivated other banks to maintain the homes in their possession, spawning new work for pool attendants, lawn services and contractors.

In a functioning economy, one would hope that a bank wouldn't allow an asset to wither away when a little investment could protect its (admittedly diminished) value. If stockholders aren't going to demand that a bank take care of its property, expect more towns to do it for them.

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