All over Tampa Bay they lurk — deserted, decaying, scary reminders of the real estate bust.
Abandoned by their owners and stuck in the foreclosure process, they are a blight on neighborhoods rich and poor. Some have been vacant for years, so long that people like Lee Randall can't even remember the last time they saw the normal signs of life.
Randall lives a few doors away from a zombie house on Nevada Avenue in northeast St. Petersburg. A large, fallen oak limb partially blocks the driveway. Jumbled piles of toys, furniture and dirty dishes can be seen through a grimy side window.
"It's been like that for years," Randall said. "They just packed up and hauled a--."
Though foreclosures overall are down and the housing market is recovering nicely, the Tampa Bay area ranks fourth in the nation in the total number of zombie houses. Of the 22,841 bay area homes still in some stage of foreclosure, 7,838 — one of every three — is a zombie that has been abandoned by the borrower but not yet repossessed by the bank, according to the housing data firm RealtyTrac.
Zombies are everywhere, but they haunt some communities more than others. In the Holiday and Port Richey areas of Pasco County, they account for 53 percent of all homes in foreclosure. In Spring Hill, they make up 41 percent and in Brandon, 39 percent.
"While the number of vacated zombie foreclosures is down from a year ago, they represent an increasing share of all foreclosures because they tend to be the problem cases still stuck in the pipeline," said Daren Blomquist, vice president of RealtyTrac.
Houses morph into zombies for a variety of reasons, all tied to delays in the foreclosure process. When a homeowner declares bankruptcy, foreclosure automatically stops. If a homeowner or condo association is owed dues, it can foreclose and stall the bank foreclosure.
And in many cases, the banks themselves — overwhelmed by the huge number of bad loans they made during the boom — contributed to zombie-fication because the documents they needed to legally foreclose were missing, inaccurate or even fraudulent.
"We had all kind of problems with the (banks) so that slowed things down," said J. Thomas McGrady, who heard scores of foreclosure cases before becoming chief judge for Pinellas and Pasco.
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George W. Bush was still president when the cute white house on Nevada Avenue NE began its transformation into rotting zombie.
In 2008, CitiMortgage started to foreclose on the loan, which Michael R. Cole assumed when he bought the house in 1995.
The foreclosure dragged on with little action until it was finally dismissed on July 18, 2012, for lack of prosecution. The bank quickly filed a motion to reopen the case, but nothing has happened in the almost three years since then.
Asked for an explanation, a CitiMortgage spokesperson said that Cole's loan is now "investor-owned'' — he would not identify the investor — and that Citi's involvement with the house ended last year. There is nothing in public records that shows Citi ever sold or transferred the loan.
Cole did not return calls seeking comment. In 2006, according to records, he and his wife moved to Brooksville and bought a much larger home with a $265,000 loan from another bank.
Meanwhile, the Nevada Avenue house, vacant for nearly a decade, remains an eyesore in an otherwise attractive neighborhood. The home across the street recently sold for $265,000. The house next door is getting an extensive renovation and new pool, shielded by trees from the worsening blight .
"There's some nasty stuff in there," Randall, who lives nearby, said of the zombie house. "You'd need a mask and bulldozer."
As of this month, the zombie was among 577 vacant properties in St. Petersburg. Since 2012, the city has required lenders to register properties within 10 days of foreclosing and provide contact information for a property manager in case they fall into disrepair.
"The big banks — Wells Fargo, Bank of America — have really come around to being much more responsive, much more compliant," says Todd Yost, the city's director of codes compliance. "I'm not seeing a tremendous amount of blight. It's significantly decreased."
Yost has a broader definition of "zombie" than that used by RealtyTrac, which looks only at abandoned homes in active foreclosure. He considers a zombie to be any property, in foreclosure or not, whose owner owes more in assessments for code violations than the property is worth.
Such properties are "dead," as Yost puts it.
The city is considering plans to start foreclosing on zombies, many of which are owned by investors who got them through tax deed sales or bulk purchases.
"Their name is on the property but nobody actually is taking care of it or cares about it," Yost said. "The city ends up mowing and the city becomes the caretaker at taxpayer cost."
Once the city gains control of a zombie, he added, it could be sold to "someone who actually wants to live there."
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In Tampa, property owners also must register vacant houses in foreclosure. Most of the 3,400 homes currently on the list already have been repossessed by the lender though some remain in the name of borrowers long since gone.
In 2013, a bank began foreclosing on the East Tampa house that a now-elderly woman had lived in for two decades. Records show that she moved to Tallahassee soon afterward, abandoning the four-bedroom contemporary home.
Today the fence is broken. Trash and weeds have replaced grass in the yard.
East Tampa and an area north of Busch Boulevard between Fowler Avenue and 40th Street are "probably our most active areas" for zombies, said Jake Slater, administrator of Tampa's Neighborhood Empowerment Department. "But I think the housing market is starting to come back and hopefully it will come back strong."
Though zombies account for a third of active Tampa Bay foreclosures, their numbers have dropped 25 percent from a year ago. That reflects a dramatic dip in foreclosures in general. From the peak in June 2012, when Pinellas and Hillsborough had a total of 57,000 pending foreclosures, the number has slipped to just under 20,000.
As cases are resolved, zombie houses return to the land of the living.
Four years ago, the Space Coast Credit Union started foreclosing on a three-bedroom, two-bath home in Clearwater's Morningside Meadows area but had to stop when the owners declared bankruptcy. They moved out, leaving the house deserted for almost two years with the yard growing scraggly and the pool turning soupy.
In 2013, the credit union went to bankruptcy court and got approval to resume foreclosure proceedings. It took back the house, and has since glammed it up with new kitchen cabinets and granite countertops, new tile in the shower and new paint throughout.
The home is now on the market for $264,900. "Fresh and spacious,'' the listing says, and a zombie no more.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.