Mystery of the vacant houses

vacated-nb.jpgPhoto: Nancy Boyarsky

The vacancy rate for single family homes in LA is 1.2%. This includes houses that are up for sale, rent, or lease but haven't found a buyer or tenant yet. The statistic also includes a small number of houses that are still in the hands of owners but--for various reasons--stand empty.

For me, the big mystery is why two long-vacant homes are just a few doors away from us. Another house, a few blocks away, appears to be in the same lonely state. An official city notice in the window, warns: "Vacated Building DO NOT ENTER."

What's hard to wrap my head around is that while these houses stand empty, countless homeless men and women wander the surrounding streets, finding shelter at night in shop doorways and under freeway overpasses. God knows what will happen to them when El Niño delivers the downpour predicted. Not that any of them could afford these houses. But the high prices reflect one of the city's major problems, the lack of affordable housing. This, in turn, contributes to the ever growing number of homeless on our streets.

Back to the empty houses nearby. I don't know the back story of the home with the official "vacated" notice. But the two on my block come with sad histories of how they came to be unoccupied and why they remain so.

The first house, two doors down from us, is nicely maintained. Gardeners appear every week, removing weeds, tending the sprinklers, and looking after things. Flowers bloom in beds across the front, and a sign warns that the place is patrolled by a security company. Inside, automated lights turn on at night, making it look as if someone is home.

When we first moved into our house, several decades ago, a family much like ours lived there. Two parents and two teenagers. The kids seemed well behaved and clean-cut, although I never got to know them well. I did know the parents, and they were lovely people, the kind who rounded up our dog when he escaped from our yard and gave us a call when our car was parked on the wrong side on street-sweeper day, about to get a ticket.

Their deaths were unimaginably tragic. The first two were suicides. Then, suffering from a painful and fatal disease, the mother tried to kill herself but failed. She suffered another year or so before she died. The last survivor, a now-adult daughter, lived with her family in another part of the state. She said she had no intention of selling the house, or even renting it out. Sentiment, I guess. Only a couple of years passed before she was gone, too, dying suddenly of a breathing disorder.

A relative in Northern California now owns the property. For the past six years it has neither been put up for sale nor offered for rent, leaving us neighbors puzzled and uneasy. There's something unsettling about an empty house, especially one with a such a tragic history.

The place next to it has been vacant for about two years. This house is somewhat rundown in appearance. Although the yard gets a perfunctory mow and blow every week or so, a number of dying trees and shrubs languish in front. Through the few windows where the shades aren't pulled down, clutter is visible inside.

The resident, now elderly and in assisted living, was a collector who couldn't bear to throw things away. While she was still in the house, she would sometimes patrol the street on garbage collection days to make sure no one was throwing away anything of possible use or value. If she did find something, she'd take it home. You get the picture.

I understand the situation perfectly. My father wasn't exactly a hoarder, but he did have an aversion to throwing things away. Unable to tackle the clutter, he worried about what would happen to the house if he needed to go into a nursing home. Clearing it out was beyond his strength and decision-making capacity at that point in his life. Fortunately, he was able to live independently, surrounded by the clutter, until the age of 91. He then had a stroke and was dead within a few weeks. It took me, my sisters, my husband, son-in-law and nephew days to clear the place out, including the worst headache, the remains of his business inventory (surplus electronics) that filled the basement.

So it may not be so puzzling why the collector's house remains unoccupied. It's probably the question of what to do with all the things she'd left in the house. How likely is it that the owner can be persuaded to throw these items away or even donate them?

Every week or so a local realtor will ring my doorbell, and we'll have a chat about the empty houses. One of them commented that it was pretty puzzling because "the lots alone are each worth a million dollars." It's a crazy price in an area with fairly modest homes. But it is true that developers will buy a house in the neighborhood for a million, more or less, and knock it down to put up something much larger and more expensive.
The downside is that many of the old houses, while small, are architectural gems built by the Janss Investment Company in the late 1920s. Ours, for example, originally had two bedrooms. We fixed it up and added a master bedroom suite. The house is Spanish style with arched ceilings and foot-thick walls. The art deco fixtures are original, and it has a round breakfast nook with a domed ceiling.

At the time Janss built houses in our neighborhood, it was developing Westwood Village. The company also sold a huge parcel of land at a bargain rate to the state to become the campus of UCLA. Everyone in the neighborhood knows that once the vacant houses are sold, they're fairly certain to be knocked down and replaced by two-story McMansions, built to within a few inches of the property line. So maybe it's better that they remain empty, at least for a while.

Nancy Boyarsky is the author of "The Swap: A Mystery," "The Bequest: A Mystery" and coauthor with Bill Boyarsky of "Backroom Politics."

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