RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - The On Your Side Investigators tracked down the owner of a blighted property in Richmond all the way in California.
Shortly after the Blight On Your Block segment about a property on Sewell Street aired, Jaime McNeal called our newsroom. The sad story we've been investigating is familiar to officials dealing with the fallout of the mortgage crisis.
"Through Facebook, I learned I was being searched for, for a home that I thought was in my past," McNeal said.
At one point, Mc Neal thought he was living the American Dream. He bought his first home, a property on Sewell Street, at 25. Like many, his mortgage got passed through three different lenders. McNeal started to have problems many homeowners face making ends meet.
"I started to get behind and then I learned that I have an illness and that affected my working, which took me further behind," McNeal recalled.
He said he couldn't make what became an $1,100 per month payment and Litton, the company servicing his loan, wouldn't help him. He remembers Litton, a company we've learned is now defunct, foreclosed on the Sewell Street property.
"I told them you can have the house back and they said 'well you'll be foreclosing on this day so make sure that when you leave or wherever you go make sure that you give us the address,'" McNeal said.
He says he told lenders he was going to California. At one point, he was even homeless.
"I was under the understanding that I was foreclosed on my home and there was nothing left for me to live in," McNeal maintained.
In what would become a cruel twist of fate, that wasn't the case. Foreclosure proceedings were never completed. Shortly after what McNeal calls communication issues, another company, Ocwen, took over Litton's mortgages. That timing could have made the confusion worse. Ocwen still has McNeal listed as owing them money. Officials say many people make this common mistake because foreclosure proceedings can be complicated.
While those penalties for not making any mortgage payments have been adding up, McNeal also owes the City of Richmond $10,814.71 in taxes and fees on the blighted property. After talking with NBC12, he says he finally decided to check out his finances.
"I'm looking at my credit report and I see $34,000 on my mortgage, $11,000 on taxes and a house that I could've been living in while I was homeless," McNeal lamented.
He insists he's going to get in touch with both Ocwen and the city to decide how to move forward once he gets his health situation under control.
"I could have been living in my own home," he added. "This hurts me just as it hurts those people living on that street that are seeing that house in that condition."
The biggest issue city officials working to clean up blighted properties face is finding and contacting property owners. The challenges can leave homes like the one on Sewell Street languishing in disrepair for years and cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.
John Walsh, with Richmond's code enforcement division, says the confusion about foreclosure rules is more common than you think.
"In effect a notice of foreclosure is not a foreclosure," he explained. "When the bank notifies you that you're in foreclosure and you've fallen behind and they're going to take possession of the house that doesn't mean that you don't own it. You still own the property."
Since McNeal still owns the property, the city has been trying to find him for three years. In this situation, like most cases, the city performs all kinds of searches, including on the Internet and in DMV and police records. Walsh says our "Blight on Your Block" segment changed the game.
"We look everywhere we can and if somebody else can help us, like for instance when you all aired this story, he calls in and says 'hey I understand my old house was on the news,' 11:49:12 well that's great," Walsh said. "That's a resource we didn't have before."
Using those resources could help taxpayers. Finding property owners means more money in city coffers. Walsh says once owners are contacted, the goal is to collect through the finance and tax collection department.
Those officials whittled down a list of properties with tax or blight situations from 3,000 to 1,700. The city says it has taken a renewed interest in trying to track down owners and get homes like the one on Sewell Street back on the tax roll.
"This is an older city with a lot of older homes and you have a lot of homes that fall into this because there's nobody around to take care of them," Walsh added.
We are still waiting on total dollar figure from the city on how much is owed in property taxes and fees on blighted properties.