The foreclosure crisis engulfing neighborhoods across the Tampa Bay area is a sign to most people of a distressed economy. But to the law enforcement officers who patrol these neighborhoods, the empty homes represent something else entirely: a haven for crime. Scattered in the central neighborhoods of St. Petersburg and Tampa, or in the zombie subdivisions that dot the exurbs of Hillsborough and Pasco counties, abandoned homes provide a place for thieves to stash their stolen goods and for addicts to get high, authorities say.
Meanwhile, squatters and burglars are stripping homes bare, stoking fears of a downward spiral that could lead to more foreclosures, and even more crime.
"We're seeing a lot of empty homes," says Hillsborough sheriff's Maj. Ronald Hartley, who oversees most of southern Hillsborough, which saw home construction explode during the boom years. "They're problematic because they provide opportunity. Why would I break into a house where someone could be home when there are so many homes that I know aren't occupied?"
Welcome to a new era of American crime, says Richard Florida, an author who has written extensively on social and economic trends.
While urban decay posed the biggest challenge for police in the 20th century, the decline of the suburbs and the abandonment of single-family homes will be the larger problem in coming decades, Florida says.
Suburbs are more spread out, making them harder to patrol. And they are less dense, so there are fewer eyes on the street to protect neighborhoods when the police aren't there.
"It's a problem that we have to be aware of, especially in places that fell victim to speculation," Florida says. "Who would've thought that it's the big cities that have become more vital and less dangerous (while) the suburbs are the ones that have become less vital and more dangerous?"
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Locally, law enforcement is still trying to get its arms around the extent of foreclosure-related crime. Hillsborough sheriff's deputies, for example, only recently began noting in crime reports whether homes affected by crime were occupied or not.
But authorities have no doubt there is a strong connection.
In St. Petersburg, police say it's a tired pattern: Empty homes are vandalized by teens and occupied by vagrants. They're stripped of their valuable metals by thieves who destroy them in the process. Then they get taken over by drug dealers and burglars.
Thieves find foreclosed homes especially useful. Carrying stolen goods in daylight increases the chances of getting caught. But the housing crisis has left plenty of places to hide that stuff until nightfall.
Stephanie Church knew the empty homes in her St. Petersburg neighborhood were trouble. She found out how much on Dec. 16, when she came home to find her 52-inch plasma TV, DVD player and stereo missing from her residence in the Harbordale section of the city.
Church had left to drive her 11-year-old son to his bus stop then dropped her 4-year-old daughter off at preschool. The house was locked. A neighbor sat on his porch across the street, keeping watch as always. It was about 9:30 a.m.
She was gone 15, 18 minutes, tops.
Church called 911 right away. Phone in hand, instinct took her to the two empty, foreclosed homes sitting to the right of her home.
"My mind said to look in those empty houses," said Church, 41, "because something is always going on in those empty houses."
She peered into a window two doors down and saw her TV inside— along with the man who likely stole it.
"The police told me to get away from there and get back to my house," she said. "I immediately ran back. I was scared."
The burglar got away. But Church recovered her property -- one of the lucky few to do so.
In 2009, St. Petersburg's code department boarded up 532 homes — the most in a decade. That's an 82 percent increase from 2007, and it doesn't even include the homes that owners boarded up themselves.
By midyear 2009 the city was seeing a 10 percent jump in burglaries. Even former Mayor Rick Baker's home got hit.
Sgt. Tim Montanari, who commands the city's burglary unit, said police have stepped up their patrols of abandoned homes, which has helped to significantly reduce the burglary rate in recent months.
His detectives are even looking at preforeclosure filings, in hopes of identifying future problems.
Many empty homes, he says, will become eyesores, strewn with trash and spray-painted with graffiti. Ceilings and insulation will be ripped apart by thieves looking to strip and sell metal. Those ruined homes can't be resold or rented, perpetuating the foreclosure crisis.
Church says that when it gets dark, the abandoned homes on her block are never empty. That keeps the mother of two up at night.
"I think they're probably doing drugs, sex or just living there," she says. "I don't even know because I don't dare walk over there and peek."
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Crime is way down in Sulphur Springs, a central Tampa neighborhood chock-full of foreclosures. Lt. Paul Lusczynski, who patrols the neighborhood for Tampa police, likes to think more patrols had something to do with that. Since 2005, three more officers have worked here.
But he acknowledges it could be something else.
"One argument is that crime is down here because there's no one left," Lusczynski says.
The streets of Sulphur Springs are empty during the day and feel almost haunted. Trash is piled high at the curb of some homes. This is a neighborhood where about 85 percent of the homes are rented, Lusczynski says. There's almost no difference in the conditions of homes owned by absentee landlords and homes owned by banks, he says.
While burglaries are down, the condition of many properties is so appalling it's hard to believe there's anything worth taking.
One house on 15th Street looks unoccupied. Its side window is broken. So on a recent day, Luscyznski decided to look around. The back door is open and Luscyznski enters. Inside, garbage is stacked to the ceiling. There's no room to stand.
"This is disgusting," he says. "We've got to do a better job than this."
The hottest crime in these parts is the theft of air conditioning units. Thieves strip the units of their copper. A copper coil fetches about $70 now, compared to $6 just a few years ago. They can get away with it, too, because so few residents live here to report the crime.
City officials started a program last year to buy homes that are too far gone and then demolish them. That helped eliminate one notorious house that had become a magnet for crime. But there's nowhere near enough money to buy all the trashed homes and city officials often get outbid by investors.
As bad as Sulphur Springs is — and it's arguably the worst in the Tampa Bay area with its high concentrations of foreclosures — it's an older neighborhood, meaning it's more compact and easier to patrol.
That's not the case in the rural parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties, which had its cow pastures and crop land replaced during the recent boom with sprawling cul-de-sac neighborhoods, some of which have foreclosure rates of nearly 50 percent.
Pasco has been especially hard hit with foreclosures, and the Sheriff's Office there says the abandoned homes draw teens and thieves.
The teens want someplace to party, says sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll, while the thieves want a place to ransack.
"(Teens) are partying, having sex; runaways are living in empty homes," Doll says. "We're still having trouble with people stealing air conditioners. Whenever the cost of raw metal goes up, the crooks come out."
Empty homes also create a nuisance problem in Pasco neighborhoods.
"Lawns not being mowed, screens being torn, swimming pools filled with rancid water, mosquitoes in the pool, gutters overflowing," Doll says. "That can affect the quality of life for an entire neighborhood if there are a lot of foreclosed homes, and that can depress the sales of existing homes in a neighborhood."
In southern Hillsborough, the subdivisions that were built within the past five years are aging rapidly and luring crime. Carriage Pointe, which has about 380 homes built between 2005 and 2007, is thought to have the highest concentration of foreclosed homes in the county. It also has a crime problem.
But other subdivisions are almost as bad, says Hartley, whose southern Hillsborough district is 2 1/2 times the size of Tampa.
"Any new subdivision, there's probably 10 percent to 15 percent vacant homes in it, maybe higher," Hartley says. The empty homes and high number of people who rent the homes have transformed subdivisions from stable patrolling environments into less certain territory, he says.
"They're much more like an apartment complex now," Hartley says. "It used to be people in this district were more permanent, rooted. They would move two to three times in a lifetime. Now we have people who move every time the rent is due."
Hartley has his deputies keep a list of all the foreclosed homes, which they try to visit twice a week. Last year, a deputy visited one home and found teens were storing stolen items there. They were able to solve three other burglaries once deputies sifted through the loot.
Lt. Cliff Fletcher patrols an area in Riverview that just a few years ago was mostly farmland.
"It's changed so much," says Fletcher while driving along U.S. 301. "I don't recognize it."
As he patrols neighborhoods, he consults a manila file labeled "vacant homes." He inspects them to make sure they are locked. He notes the condition of the landscaping. Long grass, Fletcher says, is an invitation for burglars to break in.
In the Rivercrest subdivision, where Fletcher knows of 71 empty homes, he works closely with the homeowners association. They help cut the lawns and report any vandalism. But even with that cooperation, there are still houses like the one on Mountain Bay Drive. The patio door to the pool has been ripped off its hinges. Glass is sprinkled across the patio deck. Boards are nailed across where the sliding door once was.
"This would cost a lot to fix up," Fletcher says.
It has been like this for months, but Fletcher can't identify the victim. Property records indicate the owner is a Brandon woman, but she has already lost the house to foreclosure. A bank now owns it, but he can't find out how to reach an official who knows anything about it.
County commissioners approved a new ordinance last year that requires lenders to register homes once they begin foreclosure. While that has been effective, it does nothing to trace the homes that already were in default.
"There's not a person we can go to," Fletcher says. "We have to have the victim's cooperation, and often that's the bank or the home builder. But they just don't cooperate.
"I end up having to play detective to figure out who owns it. It makes it very difficult for us. If we can't find the victim, then we don't really have a crime."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or [email protected]