Foreclosure Crisis Ceding American Communities to Rats, Insects

As the foreclosure crisis continues to infect Bay Area residential neighborhoods, county governments are facing one ripple effect. Rats and mosquitos are moving in as homeowners move out.

The latest figures from RealtyTrac, a housing data company, offer more grim news about the housing crisis for the region. In November, there was a 56 percent increase in foreclosure notices sent out to homeowners compared to last year, and more than 6,000 homes are in one stage of the three-part foreclosure process. That means more abandoned houses and neglected properties, which invite a host of unwanted visitors, according to county officials.

Swimming pools, which once offered warm-weather family fun, now are a public health hazard as breeding grounds for mosquitos, carriers of the West Nile virus.

"We have one of the higher foreclosure rates in the state or the nation here in San Joaquin," said Aaron Devencenzi, of the San Joaquin Mosquito & Vector Control District. "At any one time, we’re watching from 100 to 2,000 neglected swimming pools on neglected properties."

Devencenzi said his office has had to spend more of its budget to hire extra seasonal workers to monitor the pools at foreclosed properties. When they get calls from neighbors complaining about abandoned pools, workers arrive to introduce mosquito fish, which eat the larvae and prevent a population explosion. "We explain that the pool will still look nasty," he said. "It isn’t going to look clean and blue."

Getting access to foreclosed houses can be difficult, so Devencenzi has been doing outreach to realtor associations, asking them to call the district if the properties they’re selling have pools that need attention. "Most of this is in urban areas and can be hard to find, so we put ads in the paper and let people know they can call us," he said.

In Alameda County, where foreclosures continue to come in waves, the office of Vector Control has not been seeing a huge increase in demand for services, which include providing information to residents who call to complain about abandoned properties and animal invaders. Calls about rodent infestations have not been going up, according to employee Lucia Hui, despite the rise in the number of abandoned properties. The reason is counterintuitive.

"In a good economy, we get more phone calls," Hui said. "People pay more attention to their neighbor. People have more time and interest in their household. Now, people will live with rats and roaches. It is a lower priority for them."

The Alameda office works with individual cities and local governments, which are responsible for code enforcement, and gives owners 30 days to clean up their property or abate the rodent problem. But so far, the rodent and trash problem hasn’t overwhelmed the office’s resources.

"Right now, it seems like it’s still okay. We haven’t really seen a severe situation yet," Hui said. "Oakland now has delayed response time, but not too bad."

Contra Costa County, especially its eastern portion, has been hard hit by foreclosures and the problems left in their wake, according to Mosquito & Vector Control District spokeswoman Debra Bass.

"It is true we have been impacted by foreclosures. Not only mosquitos and rats, but lots of garbage left behind," she said. "Years ago, attending to neglected swimming pools was not on our radar. But, in the last few years, it is taking up to 50 percent of our technicians’ time."

In the last few years, the district has hired a three-person pool crew to locate, treat and monitor abandoned pools, with mosquito fish, a key strategy. "One infected swimming pool can have more than a million mosquitos, and they can affect a neighborhood within a five-mile radius," said Bass. "I’ve been to these properties, and the surface of the pool is almost bubbling with the larvae."

Rat infestation is also an increased problem in foreclosed homes, especially in the early stages of the foreclosure, Bass said. "Typically, when people first move out, if there is a lot of garbage left behind, the rats move in," she said. "People were simply abandoning the home, and lots of vegetation is overgrown. We found dead rats or opossums, cats or other animals seeking water in the pool. But, when the people and the food are gone, the rats leave, too."

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