In the suburban wilds, along the ramshackle curve of an old cul-de-sac, Bill Langford stepped tentatively through a forest of 2-foot-tall weeds outside another abandoned home. • He dodged cobwebs and rusty rebar and walked carefully inside, sidestepping feces smeared across the terrazzo. The stripped halls were musty caverns, all rotted wood and sun-bleached trash. A family lived here once, but you wouldn't believe it from the stench. • "We have to make sure we're not boarding up anyone," he said, nodding to a dingy mattress baking in the heat. His small team of Hillsborough County code officers is charged with cleaning up deserted homes, though it often feels like a Sisyphean task.
One of every three empty foreclosed homes in America sits within the Sunshine State, including 10,000 across Tampa Bay, RealtyTrac data show. When banks fail to care for them, or homeowners turn and run, it becomes the job of public patrols like Langford to keep the chaos in check.
Much is at stake. Every long-forsaken home perpetuates a crippled market, depresses property values and hurts neighborhoods.
But from Langford's position on the front lines, the war on blight looks far from won.
"It's an epidemic," Langford said. "As fast as we clean them, new ones pop up."
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Tall, bald and stern in cargo khakis and Ironman shades, Langford leads a "special enforcement unit" dealing with Hillsborough's worst of the worst home emergencies. When not called out for meth labs, grow houses or sinkholes, he leads a five-officer team patrolling foreclosed homes across one of the hardest-hit counties in the state.
Since former Tampa Port Authority chairman William "Hoe" Brown's squalid rental trailers made headlines earlier this summer, leaders have led big sweeps to "fight the blight," with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn calling code issues a neighborhood "cancer."
But a quieter campaign has been waged for years by code officers patrolling the thousands of homes on Hillsborough's foreclosure registry, started in 2009 to keep tabs on the flood of distressed homes.
Banks and neighbors watch over many of the homes, but many have long been abandoned. Hillsborough courts have 22,000 pending foreclosure cases on their books and clear fewer than a thousand cases a month.
Langford said it would be impossible to clean up every vacant home, declaring the county "not in the mowing business." Instead, his unit focuses on clear dangers: evicting squatters, thinning overgrowth and closing off pools and crumbling homes near schools and playgrounds.
The work is about more than keeping up appearances. This month, a bank-hired landscaper mowing the lawn at a foreclosed Largo home looked inside to find the decaying body of a woman police think died three years ago. A few blocks over, a tract home made into a shelter for vagrants was suspiciously set on fire.
The danger of leaving abandoned homes unwatched is not just a problem in Florida. In Detroit, vast hordes of stray dogs have made dens from some of the bankrupt city's 70,000 deserted homes, a scene one animal agency told Bloomberg looked "almost post-apocalyptic."
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Langford has seen homes with every window smashed, halls hip-deep in garbage, bathrooms made into litter boxes for 50 cats. Compared to that, the Brandon home he surveyed one morning this month was easy. They wouldn't even have to wear their respirator masks.
Before the foreclosure, the family who lived in this suburban rancher near the shadow of Interstate 4 had taken pride in the home, building a lakefront canopy for their Boston Whaler and manicuring their yard. "Never no mess in it," a neighbor said, peering over from his side of the fence.
But some time after the bank filed to foreclose, in 2006, squatters replaced the family and the home descended into disrepair. The bank dropped its foreclosure in 2011, but neither it nor the homeowners have shown up to stop the rot.
Frank Strunk, a county tradesworker, piloted his red Toro riding mower through the swaying weeds alongside a caged swimming pool scummed over with green goop.
At the home's back wall, officer Allen Watson cut to size a protective panel left over from the Republican National Convention and boarded up a gaping hole in the concrete block. Nearby, the collapsed roof sagged with rot, but there was no time to fix it, so the crew went off to the next house.
They drove north, past a clothes dryer selling for $50 in someone's yard, past a sign for "LOW COST BURIALS," to a squat concrete-block home in Lutz, where overgrown grass scaled a plastic white-picket fence. Strunk lit a cigarette and lifted it through the heat. "We were just out here a couple weeks ago," he said.
Another foreclosure, the windows dark, two dogs barking from somewhere unseen. Great blobs of junk overflowed from two backyard sheds into an ocean of dollarweeds.
To board up a rotting porch, Watson vanished into its mound of trash and returned with a stack of plywood. Agile, resourceful and a whiz with a power drill, he said he has sealed off 150 doors this year, "not counting windows."
The home looked just as decayed by the time the boards were up, though the crew had done its job, making it harder for any squatter or vermin to move in — or out. When a neighbor complained of the home's rat infestation, Langford said, "The good news is they've got a place they like that will keep them all inside."
The officers don't hazard a guess of when these derelict homes will no longer need their help. "It'd be nice if we woke up one morning and they were all gone," Langford said. "I don't see that happening any time soon."
Instead, when neighbors ask for ideas on what to do, they preach, for at least the foreseeable future, a message of self-reliance. "I would never recommend anyone go onto another person's property," Langford said, "but you have to do whatever you can do."
In fact, when Langford and Watson drive home to opposite sides of the county, they follow their own advice. On weekends, each man revs up his lawnmower and heads toward an abandoned home down the block.
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]