Opinion: We need foreclosures

The heart of Congressman G.K. Butterfield’s prescription for Henderson is something that often seems like a dirty word: foreclosure. But what is a terrible thing for an occupied house is a blessing for an abandoned structure.

Private foreclosures — when a lender takes a house from a borrower who falls behind on the mortgage — are a big problem in Vance County. It was the rising rate of foreclosures that helped expose the dirty dealings of Creative Real Estate, and the risk of foreclosure is something none of us who owe money on our houses can ignore.

It doesn’t matter whether the foreclosure is the result of a lost job, an illness, an injury or a predatory lender; it’s awful when someone loses his home and his slice of the American dream.

But the foreclosures Henderson needs are so different that it’s unfortunate there’s not another name for them. When Vance County forecloses on a property on behalf of the city, it’s because the owner has cost us all money by not paying his public debt. That debt could be property taxes, but the immediate problem for the city is the debt property owners ignore after Henderson demolishes abandoned, dilapidated structures.

In those cases, no one is losing his home. The home was uninhabited, and uninhabitable, long before the city knocked it down. All the city wants is repayment for that demolition cost, usually between $2,000 and $6,000. Not surprisingly, most people who let their property fall apart either can’t or won’t pay for the demolition.

The city then gets a tax lien against the property, which blocks the sale of that site until the city is paid. The twist is that the lien expires after 10 years. If you can wait a decade, Clean Up Henderson Committee Chairwoman Lynn Harper complained to Butterfield on Thursday morning, you get a cleared lot free of charge.

The answer is to foreclose on the property long before that decade ends, but the county tax office, which handles the city’s tax collections and thus its liens, is not big on foreclosing. (That hesitance to use such big weapons against tax debtors might be part of the reason the county and city have a tax collection rate of less than 93 percent, compared with more than 97 percent statewide. But that’s a story for another day.)

“We don’t ever foreclose now,” Harper told Butterfield. “We put a lien on the property, but the county doesn’t ever foreclose.”

“Well, you got to get your money back,” he replied. “You got to proceed with foreclosure.”

Butterfield, after decades as a public official and as a real estate investor, knows what works. He urged Henderson to foreclose as soon as possible after filing liens. He said the city could move from demolishing a run-down house to selling a clean lot in six months.

We can’t express the ideal policy any better than Butterfield did while looking at the boarded-up rental houses on Hillside Avenue: “Tear the houses down, put a lien on the property, then foreclose on the lien.”

That simple policy would clear the way for Henderson to be reborn as a city of homeowners instead of one in which renters are a growing majority. That simple policy would allow neighborhoods to be reborn with wider streets, bigger lots, and services such as community centers and police substations. That simple policy would put us on the path to feeling safe in our homes again, whether we live near the country club or in Flint Hill.

The alternative to that simple policy is simple itself: Just stand aside and watch as we continue to slide into oblivion.