‘Cycle of community decline:’ Jacksonville zombie homes could resurge as foreclosures increase

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Abandoned homes, sometimes called “zombies”, are infecting local neighborhoods. During the housing recession of 2008, many homes got stuck in foreclosure limbo. In Florida the process can take years and impact surrounding property value if the houses sit abandoned for long. Early forecasts show zombies could come back to life in Jacksonville.


North of downtown Jacksonville, Jeanette Williams has seen the problem firsthand. She’s not worried about her house, but the one a few doors down.

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“It’s been sitting there a long time. It’s been sitting there since I moved in,” Williams said. She was outside with her grandkids on an April afternoon. “That’s what I worry about — them.”

The zombie a few doors down has been empty ever since she moved in eight years ago. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office responded to the address 18 different times since Williams has lived down the street. JSO’s calls for service show everything from drug investigations, to trespassing, and even a call about a dead person.

“An abandoned home on a street causes a statistically significant increase in violent crime for the rest of that neighborhood,” Jim Kowalski, the president of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, said. “It’s not just a cost to the city — it’s a cost to the neighbors.”

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He said there is a variety of costs to the city with these types of homes, including upkeep. A zombie home is when the owners are told their house is going into foreclosure, so they move out. The home slowly goes through Florida’s judicial foreclosure process and the banks often slow roll it hoping the value will increase, and they can sell the property for more money. When the property is less than what’s owed, the bank sometimes reverses the years-long process and gives it back to the original owner who is long gone.

“The home has risen from the dead. And is back preying upon the homeowner who has long since moved on from the property,” Kowalski explained.

While many considered the problem to be behind us, he said early forecasts show a possible resurgence because people owe more on their homes than they are worth.

“Where some percentage of the property is underwater, you will see this process restart,” Kowalski said.

WATCH: Action News Jax Investigates: Families facing foreclosure

Action News Jax Investigates found foreclosures are again on the rise. Data from the Duval County Clerk of Courts shows 693 foreclosures have been filed so far this year. In 2020, there were 1,447. Besides a dip during COVID, that number has climbed year over year to 2,146 last year. Data from Redfin shows these homes stretch across the entire county and still don’t account for all the abandoned properties in Jacksonville.

In April, JEA said there were 1,175 homes that haven’t had electricity for more than a year. While they are not necessarily “abandoned”, it’s likely no one is living in them a representative for the utility said.

Adam Bernstein is a student at the University of Florida and part of the Florida Student Policy Forum. He saw the problem while growing up in Jacksonville during the housing market crash and is now working with state legislators to help prevent future zombies.

“It creates this endless cycle of community decline,” Bernstein said. “It felt like everything was in decline. Like the place where I was living no longer had a future.”

House Bill 997 and Senate Bill 1370 would have helped expedite the foreclosure process in Florida. “You don’t have to go through the whole rigmarole of a really long judicial foreclosure process,” he said. But the bills died in committee.

Kowalski said the problem also needs to be addressed on the federal level by holding servicing banks accountable. Jacksonville Area Legal Aid helped the city create a foreclosure registry after 2008 that forces the banks to pay an annual fee on all foreclosed properties to help offset the city’s cost to maintain the homes like mowing or boarding up windows. Jacksonville is the only city in Northeast Florida with that type of registry.

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