By Errin Haines — Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA (AP) — A 30-year mortgage or serve and protect for 15.
As a solution to metro Atlanta's foreclosure crisis, a lawmaker is proposing giving foreclosed, abandoned homes to county police officers who usually can't afford to live in the neighborhoods they're sworn to protect.
Of course, the deal would come with a catch: officers must agree to serve 15 years on the force before they get the property deed. And the board of commissioners would have to persuade lenders holding the liens to give several shuttered homes to the county in exchange for tax breaks.
"I thought somebody should be in these homes," said Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts, who plans to introduce the idea to the board. "Here's a way to help a group of people who put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis at a relatively minor cost."
Cities across the country are trying to find solutions to filling up houses abandoned by people who couldn't afford their mortgages. Several are using federal money to buy foreclosed properties and sell them at cut-rate prices or interest rates. Georgia has consistently been in the top 10 in foreclosed properties, with the nation's sixth highest foreclosure rate in November, according to RealtyTrac, a Web site that tracks foreclosures.
Pitts said he thought of the plan after looking at all the empty homes in his southwest Atlanta neighborhood. The national foreclosure epidemic presents a bittersweet opportunity, he said.
"I think we have a short window because this probably won't be the situation four or five years from now. If we can take advantage of it now, I think we'll have a receptive audience," he said.
For their part, officers would have to come up with $2,500 down payment and be responsible for all taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance. Pitts said he plans to meet as soon as next week with several "major lenders," whom he declined to name, to discuss his plan.
"Here's an opportunity for them to have some goodwill coming from the community in which they do business by helping with public safety," Pitts said. "If we could get 200 (homes), that would be a good start."
Some say the idea is a creative and original solution to a crisis.
"I'd think lenders would be very interested in stabilizing neighborhoods in which they have mortgages on other properties," said Bruce Seaman, an economics professor at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University.
Programs that subsidize housing for public servants are being tried in other places. Grand Prairie, Texas, is offering foreclosured properties the city acquired with federal bailout money to government or district school employees, with the city helping with the down payment and closing costs.
The "Ohio Heroes" program offers a 30-year fixed mortgage at a reduced interest rate to first-time homebuyers in that state to military, firefighters, paramedics, police and teachers.
But free homes in exchange for years of public service seems to be a new idea.
And while it sounds like it would require financial institutions to be philanthropic, that is hardly the case, Seaman said.
"How many properties can it be?" Seaman said. "The departments aren't huge. Lending agencies being asked to participate will find this, upon reflection, a very wise move on their part."
The Fulton County Police Department has 130 officers, 18 fewer than its target number of 148. The starting salary is $32,646 for high school graduates, and $38,000 for officers with a bachelor's degree, so finding houses they can afford in the city is tough.
Department spokesman Lt. Darryl Halbert said the agency is excited about the proposal.
"The officers are able to obtain a home for very little down, the community gets a police officer and the department can use this as a recruiting tool," he said.
If it's successful, firefighters or others could later be added.
"We can't be everything to everybody in the beginning," Pitts said.
Pitts also still must get the idea past the commission. Chairman John Eaves declined to comment on the issue through his spokesman, Darryl Hicks, who said there is not yet a proposal to consider.
Moving police into the neighborhood could help reduce crime and attract buyers to other abandoned homes, Seaman said.
Samuel F. Daniel said he would feel much safer in his northwest Atlanta home with an officer in the neighborhood, where many homes sit dark and are havens for drugs, prostitution, burglary and other crimes.
"I would like for one to move next door to me," said the 85-year-old veteran. "That way, he'd see a lot of things I see and can't do nothing about. The crime would probably go further down the street somewhere."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
By Errin Haines — Associated Press Writer