It usually starts with a phone call.
A resident complains to town or village officials about conditions at an abandoned house and the process of battling weeds, rodents or worse begins.
Municipalities undertake work on an abandoned property for a variety of reasons: houses neglected by absentee owners; properties where ownership is in dispute among family members; homes that are being rehabbed but financing runs out; and zombie homes that are being foreclosed on.
Properties are generally inspected within a week or two of a complaint, officials said.
"Although we can correct the condition in five to seven days, that's a long time if someone is having a family party and somebody has ripped the door off the home next door," Freeport Village Mayor Robert Kennedy said. The village spent nearly $200,000 on blighted homes last year.
Babylon Town Chief of Staff Ronald Kluesener said the problems uncovered in inspections range from the annoying to the dangerous.
"Maybe there are kids going in there, maybe there are illegal activities taking place, maybe there are animals, maybe there are raccoons living there or rats, maybe there's tall grass, maybe there's debris, maybe there's a collapsed septic tank, maybe there's all of those things," he said.
Before they spend time and money to fix the mess, town and village workers check with the county clerk's office to find the last owner of record who would be responsible for repairs.
"If we actually have a homeowner who gets on the line and says 'I've had x, y and z problems and if you could give me a couple more days' ... dollars to doughnuts we'll do that," Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray said. "The bottom line is we want compliance and if the homeowner can do it themselves, it's better for us too.
"We don't want to be in the rehab business," Murray said. "We don't want to be in the landscaping business either quite frankly."
Owner liable for upkeep
The trouble starts when municipal officials learn a home is in foreclosure and the owner has walked away, leaving a zombie house behind. Until the foreclosure process is completed, the owner remains liable for the maintenance.
But with a homeowner no longer on site, municipalities turn to banks. And finding the right financial institution to take responsibility isn't easy.
"You have a bank in Texas, a mortgage company in Wisconsin, an attorney in New Jersey, an owner who is in Florida, who is dead or who we can't find, and then we have a home here in Valley Stream," said Edwin Fare, the village mayor.
Zahra Jafri, president of the Empire State Mortgage Bankers Association and owner of Lynx Mortgage Bank LLC in Westbury, described the zombie house crisis as a "very difficult situation," but said it's "up to the municipalities and community services to perhaps come up with some sort of method to report homes that look like they are in disarray."
Valley Stream clerk and former state assemblyman Robert Barra said the calls needed for just a handful of homes take up 70 percent of his time as clerk.
"It was impossible to get to them," Barra said of his attempts to reach Nationstar Mortgage Holdings Inc. about a property it was foreclosing on. "I called everybody. Press one, press two. And then just when you thought you were going to get to speak to a person, it says 'please type in your social security number.' "
Then he tried to reach CitiMortgage, a division of Citigroup, about another property. "You were literally ripping your hair out because the way the corporate veil was set up, it was made to keep you away," he said.
Barra said that because of those frustrations, the village does not invest any money with Citigroup or any of its subsidiaries. "It just flies in the face of every resident if we do that," he said. Hempstead Mayor Wayne J. Hall Sr. said his village took a similar tactic with Chase.
Newsday reporters contacted banks with similar results. A Nationstar spokesman was reached only after the same effort that Valley Stream officials faced. A bank spokesman said the company has a "dedicated property preservation department that coordinates and has oversight for all properties" and that there is a contact number listed on all homes.
A Citigroup spokesman declined to answer specific questions about abandoned homes.
Financial companies affiliated with an address may only serve as a "trustee," accepting mortgage payments and sending them to investors who bought a group of loans that include that property's mortgage. Those companies typically say they have no direct responsibility for the property because they have hired another company to service the loan. Mortgages are often sold from one entity to another over the course of a foreclosure, and banks sometimes fail to register those transactions with county real estate offices.
"They'll change banks and no one will know about it and we'll find out by accident," Barra said.
'Game of telephone tag'
Even when a municipality finds the right person at a bank, it becomes "a game of telephone tag" because "the sense of urgency isn't the same for the bank as it is for the town," said state Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), the former Islip supervisor.
Valley Stream officials finally sent summonses to the attention of bank chief executives at their corporate headquarters. After that, they started getting responses, Barra said.
But Valley Stream Justice Robert Bogle, who handles village summonses that are given to banks and homeowners and also reviews foreclosure cases as a supervising court attorney in Nassau County Court, said the financial industry was unprepared for the zombie house crisis. "The banks are overwhelmed because they're not in the real estate business," he said. "They never expected something like this to happen."
Municipal officials said some banks are responsive and take care of their properties without prompting. Others take some action but not enough.
"They'll cut the lawn, they'll board it up," Barra said. "And they'll try to leave it like that until the people complain enough and they have to go back and cut the lawn again or we cut the lawn and put it on the tax bill."
With Deon J. Hampton