CLEVELAND Judge Raymond Pianka views his courtroom as the emergency room of the foreclosure crisis.
Weary of lenders and wholesalers who don't show up to answer to housing code violations like unsecured doors and windows on foreclosed properties, he began holding trials without them.
He's put 12 companies on trial in absentia and has fined most, leaving each unable to sell any properties in the area until it pays up.
Rust Belt cities, already beaten down by a miserable economy before foreclosures began spiraling nationally, are moving to cut the number of houses left vacant when the mortgage can't be paid. At stake are valuable tax dollars and the survival of neighborhoods.
County treasurers and mayors are filing lawsuits and developing land banks to buy distressed properties and either demolish them or repair and sell them. Buffalo, N.Y., brings property owners and lenders together in court on monthly "Bank Days" to find solutions for cleaning up vacant homes.
"It's not a matter of if we do it. It's a matter of when we do it," City Councilman Tony Brancatelli said of the land bank planned in Cleveland.
"We can't afford to miss this opportunity. The countywide land bank is going to be a great opportunity for us to seize real estate. We have to stop the cycle of abandonment," he said.
A record-setting number of foreclosures nationally has helped drive down the U.S. economy. A report commissioned last November by the U.S. Conference of Mayors projected that 361 metropolitan areas would take an economic hit of $166 billion in 2008.
Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, has about 17,000 vacant foreclosed properties roughly 4 percent of its 395,000 houses. Baltimore has 16,000, up from 12,300 in 2000.
"The homeowner just assumes, well the bank's going to take my house, but the bank can make the economic decision not to take the house," said Cindy Cooper, a Housing Court prosecutor in Buffalo. "Then that leaves two parties walking away, each one thinking that the other is going to take care of the house."
Pianka still lives in the neighborhood where he grew up and knows firsthand the blight of houses with boarded-up windows.
"The scrappers are taking the jewelry off the corpses that are left," he said from his 13th-floor office, which overlooks frozen Lake Erie.
He's well regarded among members of the Warsaw Neighborhood Block Watch Club, who have spent time in his courtroom, determined to see something done about open, vandalized homes in their Slavic Village neighborhood.
Vacant houses, some stripped bare of aluminum siding, dot the streets, casting a gloom on their well-maintained neighbors.
"It scares people," said Joyce Porozynski, a block watch member who has lived in the neighborhood most of her life. "Many people have given up."
Across the street from Charles Gliha's cozy 120-year-old home stand three vacant houses, including one with the first-floor windows broken out. Another is being repaired, and a sign in the window warns would-be thieves that there are no copper pipes inside.
Gliha, a woodworker, has not given up hope and has no plans to leave the home where he grew up.
"People are the critical resource, and as long as we have good people like Joyce, we'll be fine," he said. "We may be in better shape in 20 years than the suburbs because we've got a culture in this neighborhood that outer ring suburbs don't."
Cleveland, among cities hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, is modeling its land bank after a program in Genesee County, Mich., home to Flint, which made tax delinquent properties available for redevelopment.
About 6,300 residential, commercial and industrial properties have been obtained since the Genesee County Land Bank started the program in 2002. About 2,300 parcels have been passed to new owners.
The goal of Cleveland's program, which must be authorized by legislation, would be to spend $6 million to $10 million a year.
The Genesee County Land Bank also is serving as a model for Baltimore where abandoned properties are as symbolic of the city as crab cakes and purple Ray Lewis jerseys. About six years ago, the city began aggressively buying up abandoned properties, acquiring more than 6,000 in that span.
The city has done little to reinvigorate those properties. A housing department report last fall said it generally took the city more than three years to foreclose on and dispose of one piece of property. The department recommended creating a land bank that would take possession of abandoned properties and streamline their sale.
In the interim, Baltimore plans to create a nonprofit this year that would perform similar functions.
"The goal is, ultimately, we spent the last five years buying property, and we want to, in a really disciplined, aggressive way, be able to return those properties to some kind of private ownership," Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank said.
Baltimore and Cleveland also have sued mortgage lenders, saying they're losing millions of dollars in tax money and in protecting or demolishing abandoned homes.
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown last year announced a plan to demolish 5,000 vacant structures in five years. The city will put up $20 million of the $100 million cost and ask the state and federal government for much of the balance.
In cases of foreclosure, the city charges the homeowner and the bank with the same building violations for things such as peeling paint and broken windows. On "Bank Days," the idea is to hammer out who will take care of repairs.
"If the house is not in a terrible state, a lot of times the bank will discharge the mortgage so that the property can be donated either to a neighbor to be demolished or a nonprofit organization for rehabilitation," Cooper said. Other times, each side pays a share.
In Cleveland, Destiny Ventures of Tulsa, Okla., sent Pianka's court a check for $53,036.75 a few weeks ago to cover its fine plus interest and attorney fees.
Destiny Ventures did not return a phone message seeking comment on the judge's trials.
Jerry Reisman, a New York real estate attorney whose clients include major banks and finance companies, believes land banks are promising and that Pianka's tactics are justified. He doesn't think those actions will affect prudent lenders' willingness to work with homeowners in those cities if the lenders are acting responsibly, they won't be affected.
"We need more effort by the government to step in here to assist homeowners," he said.
As a housing court judge, Pianka is on the low rung of the judicial system, a bungalow among mansions. He's heard himself referred to as a "rat court judge" at judicial conferences. He embraces the role.
"Many times I feel like the mouse that roared," he said, later adding, "Finally, they're paying attention to us."