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Haunted Houses

Aboarded-up house in the middle of a field in White City has been plagued by graffiti, vandalism, drugs and stolen electrical wire and pipes.

A week ago, sheriff's Deputy David Beatty found three youths loitering in the backyard of the 26th Avenue house. "One of them wanted me to drop my belt and fight him in the field," he said.

Beatty, who warned the juveniles to clear out, has discovered more and more vacant houses that attract criminal activity.

Sheriff's deputies in White City, who have also seen increased gang activity, have stepped up their efforts to curtail an onslaught of vandalism, squatting and stealing because word spreads quickly about foreclosures or vacant properties. In some cases, unoccupied houses are used to store stolen property.

Since 2000, the number of unoccupied housing units in White City has soared 634 percent, from 80 to 587, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Throughout Jackson County, vacant houses, which have increased because of foreclosures and the economy, haunt nearly every neighborhood, creating eyesores, attracting weekend parties or sheltering transients.

Countywide, the census reports an 87 percent increase in vacant houses since 2000, from 4,205 to 7,861. During that period, the total number of housing units in the county jumped from 75,737 to 90,937, the census reports. Even accounting for the greater number of houses, the vacancy rate increased from 6 percent to 9 percent of total houses countywide in the 10-year period. The vacancy rate in White City jumped from 4 percent to 19 percent in that time, according to the Census Bureau.

The Census Bureau considers a house vacant if no one was living in it at the time of the survey.

Beatty said the vacant houses in White City are popular retreats for runaways and problem youths.

"There are so many places for them to go now without adults, so they just flop from vacant house to vacant house," he said.

Beatty said White City property owners have been very cooperative when deputies investigate these houses. But with so many unoccupied now, it's difficult to find out about them all, he said.

Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point, Jacksonville, Rogue River and other communities have all seen sizeable increases in vacant houses.

"It's not getting better," said Medford police Sgt. Ben Lytle. "For whatever reason, it's getting worse."

Medford, which passed an ordinance to deal with problem vacant houses in 2009, has seen the number of unoccupied houses almost double, jumping from 1,204 in 2000 to 2,351 in 2010.

Lytle said the statistics from the Census Bureau are higher than the number of vacant houses on file with the city, possibly because not every house is registered.

When the city started the registry, 27 properties were listed. This year 529 houses are registered.

Vacant houses often lead to yards overrun with weeds or pools that become stagnant, Lytle said.

The city tries to enforce the ordinance requiring the registration of vacant properties, but Lytle said it's a rule that's not always followed.

Despite the high rate of vacancies, Lytle said code enforcement officers have noticed an improvement in the condition of vacant properties, though he said complaints will spike in spring and summer when yards get overgrown.

Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness said he hasn't seen any rise in complaints that correspond to a doubling of the vacancy rate in Ashland.

Holderness said he was surprised that the Census Bureau estimates 10 percent of the housing units in Ashland are vacant.

His officers occasionally respond to complaints of vandalism or someone living in a vacant house.

Unoccupied houses are a bigger problem in other areas, including Fontana, Calif., where Holderness formerly worked. He said the police department there often made requests to board up houses to keep people out, a situation he's heard about in other communities in the U.S.

"It's a national problem, but it hasn't seemed to have been an Ashland problem," Holderness said.

Central Point also has a registry to keep track of vacant houses.

Although the Census Bureau reports 433 vacant houses, Central Point Police Capt. Chuck Newell said he was surprised the number is so high because his department has only 50 listed.

Newell said the city has volunteers who routinely check vacant houses.

"We try to stay on top of it," he said. "We have had situations where doors have been kicked in and sometimes we have found transients inside. Sometimes, we have found kids inside."

The police department receives the most complaints about vacant houses during the summer, particularly when the weeds start growing and children begin loitering.

"We have a lot of citizenry that will call us if people start hanging out around a house," he said.

One problem house on Haskell Avenue was torched in a Jackson County Fire District No. 3 burn exercise Saturday. The homeowner, who lives in California, worked out an agreement with the city to get rid of the house, which had zoning and other problems.

When the renters moved out a few months ago, Newell said some local kids kicked in the front door.

Once a house becomes popular, it is sometimes difficult to keep squatters away.

In White City, another vacant house on 26th Avenue was preyed upon more than once by the same person.

Tyler Maxwell, 19, of White City was arrested in December for burglary and criminal mischief. Maxwell came back a week later to the same house to retrieve some belongings he left there, sheriff's Deputy Eric Henderson said.

"Maxwell decided to set up residence at the house," Henderson said.

"When we came, he was out front raking the leaves."

Deputies arrested Maxwell again on charges of first-degree burglary and trespassing.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

A District No. 3 firefighter participates in a burn to learn exercise Saturday on a vacant home off North Haskell Drive in Central Point. Vacant units have skyrocketed in some parts of the county in the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census.