One afternoon in October, Pat McNamara inspected his new house. He was about to pay the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development $61,000 for the little white bungalow on a block in North Collinwood where residents raise pink mums in flower boxes and trim their bushes into sharp-edged squares. McNamara took photos of the folding French doors in the living room. He knelt to examine the antique gas stove, then took a step back to admire the hand-built china cabinets.
When he returned the next day, everything was gone. The French doors had been stolen right off their hinges. Dangling strips of splintered wood were all that remained of the china cabinets. The stove remained, but its legs had been broken in an unsuccessful attempt to wrench it from the fireplace.
"I am pissed," says McNamara, who buys and renovates HUD-owned homes for the Northeast Shores Community Development Corporation. "Whoever did this just cost [the CDC] thousands of dollars."
Worse, it was not an isolated case.
As the Northeast Ohio economy continues its five-year slump, more people are defaulting on mortgages: There were nearly 5,000 foreclosures in Cuyahoga County last year. Most of the homes become the property of whatever bank offered the mortgage. But when a homeowner defaults on a Federal Housing Administration loan, the house is repossessed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD currently owns 110 homes in Cleveland and 1,415 in Ohio.
Anytime a house sits vacant, its dark windows and empty driveway serve as an open invitation to thieves. Some bank-owned houses survive vacancy unscathed. But in Cleveland, every house owned by HUD gets looted. "I've been doing this since 1999, and I have yet to see a HUD house that wasn't hit," says McNamara.
In fact, HUD almost seems to invite break-ins. Unlike the banks, HUD puts the same lock on every house it owns in Ohio. The key has been in circulation for four years, says agency spokeswoman Maria Bynum. Copies have been given to countless realtors and contractors across the state. The system is convenient, and the agency doesn't see a problem. "For the most part, the vandalism comes before the houses get into our possession," Bynum says. "The key isn't the issue here, because they just break the window or kick in the door."
But people who buy and renovate HUD-owned homes insist that the break-ins are not the work of vandals or drug addicts. And they usually occur after HUD takes possession, not before. "Whoever's doing this has the key," McNamara says. "There's never any sign of forced entry. This is definitely an inside job."
The thieves are methodical. Every Thursday, HUD posts newly acquired homes on its website. Every Friday, the looting intensifies, say McNamara and realtor David Sarver, who specializes in foreclosed homes. The Cuyahoga County sheriff has lists of HUD- and bank-owned houses slated for sheriff's sales, and foreclosed houses can be found on the Multiple Listing Service, a website for realtors. Says Sarver, "As soon as a house appears on one of these lists, boom, it's hit."
The thieves also are discerning. They ignore modern furnaces and water heaters, which have some resale value, and target antiques. "When somebody steals the doorknobs, that tells me somebody's got a very direct connection to the antique market," Sarver says. "Whoever's doing this knows exactly what they're doing."
A glass doorknob will fetch $10 from the antiques dealers on Lorain Avenue; an ornate iron heating grate, about $5. The real money is in French doors and leaded glass windows, which can be sold for up to $200 each. But that's as much on the subject as most antique dealers will say to a reporter. Most will not even give their names.
"A lot of the stores here are known for buying stolen stuff," says Cyndy Nicolson, owner of Reincarnation, a Lorain Avenue shop. "I won't buy something if I think it's stolen. But really, there's no way for us to know."
Local dealers may not be the only option for thieves. "The shops on Lorain Avenue can't handle the sheer volume of stuff that's being stolen," Sarver says. "These people must be part of nationwide networks that take this stuff and sell it in other cities."
The looting appears to be systematic and well organized, but HUD clings to the idea that it's the work of random vandals. And agency officials believe that there isn't much they can do about it. "We do everything we can to cut down on vandalism," says HUD's Bynum. "But if the houses are in a high-density area where crime may be high, they're not excluded from vandalism."
Looting costs HUD as much as $20,000 per house in lost property value. "I've had numerous transactions where we were ready to close, but then somebody comes in and steals all this stuff, and the buyer backs out," says Vivian Ridley, a realtor who has worked with HUD homes since 1978.
"The only advantage our neighborhood has over the suburbs are the historical details left in our houses," says McNamara (who plans to seek a $2,000 rebate for the damage to the North Collinwood house). "When we lose those details, we lose a major incentive for people to move here."
So realtors and developers urge the police to get more involved. "The police see this as small-time theft," Sarver says. "They don't realize how many houses are being hit."
But like HUD, the police say that they're virtually powerless. The department usually investigates cases of suspected looting only when officers witness it. "Unfortunately, we have a lot of addicts and homeless people out there, and they prey upon abandoned homes," says Cleveland Police Lieutenant Wayne Drummond.
Informed that these thefts appear well organized and rampant, Drummond says, "Maybe we could look into it."
Meanwhile, Pat McNamara grouses about all the work his newly purchased house needs. He'll have to remove the furnace and the remains of the china cabinets. He even plans to install custom-made French doors, which will cost $1,000. "Somebody's stealing from the inner city and stealing from the federal government, and the government is looking the other way," McNamara says. "What bothers me most is that it happens every single time."
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