March 4, 2009 -- By the time the cops arrived, the house was in total shambles.
Windows were smashed, beer cans were strewn across the lawn, light fixtures were pulled out of the ceiling, the drywall was kicked out exposing the studs in the walls, and on nearly every available surface, spray paint indicated what that section of the house was to be used for, from the "liquor wall" to the "sex room."
The Ft. Myers, Fla., party ended late last month with 17 people lined up in the driveway staring into the blinding lights of a police cruiser's headlamps. Seven of them, aged 18 to 20, were on their way to the station to be fingerprinted and charged with loitering, prowling and contributing to the delinquency of a minor; the other 10, all under 18, faced an even worse fate -- explaining everything to their parents.
The recession gives people few reasons to celebrate, and families forced to foreclose on their homes and move out have little occasion to party. But for some young people across the country, the explosion of homes abandoned by their owners, like the one in Ft. Myers, is cause for celebration.
While a few kids hanging out may seem harmless enough, these foreclosure parties in vacant homes are often accompanied by drug and alcohol use, truancy, burglary, vandalism, and sometimes violence.
Police say breaking up a party, however, is not enough to stop the problem, which can encourage more troublesome criminal activities and diminish property values for an entire neighborhood.
The abandoned homes are often bank owned, but law enforcement often has a difficult time determining which bank actually owns the property. With no "victim" to press charges, offenders -- even those who steal from or vandalize the homes -- often get away without being prosecuted.
Banks sometimes will cover the cost of boarding up abandoned property they own, but generally do not. Cities and police departments generally cannot afford to board up a home, sending a message that these buildings are open for parties and other criminal activity.
"They were there for a beer party -- an open house party -- and to have a good time," Lee County Sheriff Office spokesman Sgt. Larry King said of the party held Feb. 23 in Ft. Myers. "But it went too far. The place was totally destroyed. We don't know if the vandalism took place that night or over several days, so some of the individuals might still be charged with vandalism."
Teen Parties In Foreclosed Homes a Growing Problem
Kids partying in vacant homes is not a new phenomenon, police in several states said, but areas with increasing numbers of foreclosures are seeing a rise in the number of problems at foreclosed homes, including parties thrown by minors, vagrants seeking shelter, thefts of appliances and copper pipe, and gangs and drug dealers using the vacant homes as bases.
Abandoned homes offer partying minors the same perks they do to criminals, said Alfred Blumenstein, a criminology professor at Carnegie Melon University.
"The availability of unoccupied housing is an important draw," he said. "It gives kids and criminals the same thing. It gets them off the street and away from where people can see what they are up to and gets them out of the weather."
There are no hard numbers for parties -- or any crimes -- at foreclosed homes, but police departments from Florida to California say they spend more time answering calls about illegal activity in foreclosed homes.
In Porter County, Ind., police in January arrested five juveniles for criminal mischief after arriving on the scene of a foreclosed home being used for a party. According to the police report, some of the minors had done $5,000 worth of damage.
Found in the home were used condoms and two empty cases of beer. According to the police report, the carpets were stained with urine, the drywall had been broken and doors were broken.
A neighbor who lives next door to the Ft. Myers home, where young people did $75,000 worth of damage, described the party as a "completely isolated incident."
But the county sheriff said police were responding to "a significant number of problems at foreclosed homes," most of which involved theft of appliances and pipes. Lee County sheriffs have posted 129 foreclosure eviction notices in the past several weeks, King said.
In 2008, just over a half million people went into foreclosure in Florida, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure research firm. By comparison, nearly 840,000 people had their homes foreclosed in California.
The Ground Zero of Foreclosure Mischief
With so many homes in California in foreclosure, thousands have been abandoned and many have surreptitiously been taken over by minors, skateboarding in drained swimming pools and partying out of sight of their parents and the police.
San Bernardino County -- with its more than 40,000 bank-owned homes -- is arguably the ground zero of foreclosure mischief.
On Jan. 3, police in Victorville, Calif., were dispatched after receiving a call about a shooting. When they arrived on the scene they learned the incident had taken place at a foreclosed home that had been abandoned.
"Through investigation it was learned that the home the party was being held at was a vacant foreclosed home," reads the police report on the incident.
The shot was fired from a crowd of people and police have yet to find an assailant. The victim was shot in the leg and taken to the hospital by paramedics.
If a shooting at a vacant home is a rarity, truancy -- especially in San Bernardino -- is increasingly commonplace.
Police in Fontana, Calif., a town of about 180,000 people in the south California county, are called to vacant homes three times a day, said Sgt. Jeff Decker of the Fontana Police Department.
Some of those calls involve vagrants and criminals making use of the foreclosed buildings, but many of them involve minors ditching school or throwing parties.
"We get a mixture of kids who go into the homes late at night and others during school hours," Decker said. "They throw parties and have get-togethers. They leave behind a wake of minor destruction -- graffiti, litter, wrecked walls."
In the past week, Decker said, his police department has received more than 100 calls regarding activity in abandoned homes.
Minors looking for a house in which to hold a party are often first tipped off by its dead lawn.
Decker said it was not uncommon for there "to be 15 to 20 juveniles sitting in a front yard waiting for their parents to pick them up" on a Saturday night after a party gets broken up by the police.
Prevention, he said, was particularly difficult given the problems the state has when trying to get banks to board up the homes, and even prosecuting suspects caught red-handed is sometimes impossible.
"Even on a trespass or minor vandalism charge, we have to have a victim. We have to locate someone to file charges," he said. "Without a victim, it's hard to progress with a prosecution."
The bank would be that victim in most cases, but, he said, "It's usually impossible to even figure out which bank owns the house."
"The mortgages are packaged off and sold to various places. The lenders don't just put themselves on a list so we know how to contact them," Decker said. "Even if we know the bank, they usually won't send a representative to court, so the suspects get released."
Vacant Homes Cause Neighborhood Watch
Decker said boarding up homes "would stem the tide of continued activity," but that homes rarely get locked up because the city cannot afford to pay for all the work. Moreover, he added, "It's a quality of life issue. Everyone in the neighborhood doesn't want plywood."
Some of the banks say they are willing to board homes that become problematic.
The home ransacked by youths in Ft. Myers was owned by Wells Fargo.
The bank would not comment specifically on the course of action it would take in that case, but that it generally employed property companies to secure the home.
"Once we take possession, we report the home to our property companies across the country. They take measures to secure the home, drain the pool, repair windows, take care of the lawn and make sure there is no way to enter," Wells Fargo spokeswoman Deborah Bloom said.
The best way to keep parties and crime away from vacant homes in your area is to keep an eye on abandoned properties and be in touch with your neighbors, said Fred Wilson, a spokesman for the National Sheriffs Association.
"Neighborhood watches are a particularly good idea in areas with lots of foreclosed homes," he said. "In areas with lots of foreclosures, the tax base has dwindled measurably and law enforcement is spread thin. It's up to people to keep an eye out for their neighbors, and that means keeping an eye on their neighbors' kids."