Shortly after midnight on April 14, Brainerd police officers received information that someone had entered a foreclosed home on the 400 block of North Eighth Street.
When they arrived at the vacant three-story house, officers found doors and windows open but no damage to the interior. The building was secured by the city.
This foreclosed home in north Brainerd is one of several vacant houses that have city officials concerned about vandalism, theft or squatting. The Northside Neighborhood Association recently formed a housing committee with the intent to document each house in the neighborhood. Brainerd Dispatch/Matt Erickson » Purchase reprints of this photo.
It's a problem being played out throughout the country as more homes fall into foreclosure or are left vacant. The empty houses attract vandals, thieves seeking copper or antique fixtures and others looking for a free place to live.
In the April 14 case it was believed to only be youths entering the house, but Elizabeth Harris, Brainerd Police crime prevention specialist, said her concern is that much worse could be on the horizon, including vagrants setting up camp in foreclosed homes.
So far, Brainerd has been fortunate in avoiding that problem, which has surfaced in the Twin Cities.
"But you know that's coming," Harris said. "It's only a matter of time."
The Star Tribune recently reported more than 20,000 Minnesota homes and buildings went through foreclosure in 2008. Currently in Crow Wing County there are 93 foreclosed homes and buildings on the sheriff's auction list, the county recorder's office reported.
Brainerd Housing Inspector Bill Kronstedt said the city will secure vacant or foreclosed homes if needed, but there's not enough staff to check empty properties on a regular basis.
For Kronstedt, the biggest concern is safety because most vacant and foreclosed homes have no water or power, leading to health and sanitation issues. There's also a danger of people lighting fires in a home without heat, he said.
Like Harris, Kronstedt believed it would only be a matter of time before squatting becomes a problem.
"If the economy continues in the direction it is going, more and more people will be getting desperate for a place to live," he said.
Brainerd Police Chief John Bolduc said his officers are alert to the possibility that squatting could become a problem but unlike Harris and Kronstedt he doesn't anticipate it becoming a reality.
Still, Bolduc wanted to remind residents to inform law enforcement of suspicious activity at any home.
Harris said the deterioration of the city's housing stock can lead to serious consequences for neighborhoods as it sends the wrong message to prospective buyers, lowers the value of houses and invites criminal activity.
One answer, Harris said, is having neighbors living next to vacant or foreclosed homes to monitor the property.
The Northside Neighborhood Association recently formed a housing committee with the intent of documenting each house in the neighborhood.
Association and committee member Kayleen Larson said the committee was formed not so much because of a increase in foreclosed homes but to form contacts between neighbors.
"It's a combination of rapid turnover in housing and a sense of loss in that connectiveness," Larson said. "We really need to reconnect, especially if we have properties changing, and the pace seems to be quickening.
"The bottom line is how sustainable is this living in north Brainerd. We like this kind of lifestyle and we want to look around us, at the conditions of properties whether they're in foreclosure or there's maintenance issues. If houses fall into disrepair, it can have a domino effect."
The committee will be taking photos of each home and list the names of the people who live there. Larson was quick to point out that the committee will not be a policing agency and does not want to alienate neighbors.
"There's no aggressiveness to it, just wanting to help out the neighborhood," Larson said. "I think we view these neighborhoods as assets. We feel that unless we get involved we might lose them."
Harris said she hopes the northeast and southeast Brainerd residents' associations would form similar committees.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
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