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Zombie home agreement with banks a good step, but state legislation needed, officials say

An abandoned house in Brentwood on Dec. 18,

An abandoned house in Brentwood on Dec. 18, 2014. Credit: Chuck Fadely

Guidelines in a deal between the state and nearly a dozen banks and mortgage companies are an important step in fighting the crisis of blighted homes in foreclosure, but legislation to hold banks accountable for property maintenance is still needed, state and local officials said Monday.

The Department of Financial Services announced Monday that the agreement with 11 firms including Wells Fargo and Bank of America sets out "best practices" for maintaining vacant homes in foreclosure, known as zombie homes. Currently, banks are not required to maintain homes until they complete the foreclosure process, which takes an average of three years in New York.

The state agreement does not include fines or punishments, leading elected officials to renew calls to pass legislation proposed by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. That bill, which is being considered in the Senate and Assembly, would create a registry and impose fines of $1,000 per day for failing to register a property or maintain it.

Newsday and News 12 Long Island reported in March that local municipalities last year spent more than $3.2 million to maintain vacant homes and that the zombie houses have cost Long Island at least $295 million in depreciated home values.

State Sen. Jeff Klein (D-Bronx), a sponsor of the bill, in a statement Monday called the agreement with the banks a "step in the right direction" but added that legislation is needed that "carries real penalties."

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, in a statement, applauded the agreement while calling on the legislature to pass Schneiderman's bill "to fight this epidemic."

The legislation is needed "in order to confront this problem in a lasting and meaningful way," Hempstead Village Mayor Wayne J. Hall said.

Benjamin M. Lawsky, superintendent of Financial Services, called the deal with the banks a "very good step in the right direction" but acknowledged it wasn't a final solution.

"I'm not going to claim this will fix everything, because first of all we don't have every bank," he said in an interview. "But I can tell you this: The Cuomo administration and DFS are going to be very focused on whether this causes things to improve, and if it doesn't, we're going to be asking very quickly why not and how do we fix it and make it better. We're not going to give up."

Lawsky said the agency is "supportive in general" of Schneiderman's proposed legislation but added that there is a "larger problem, which is the prolonged and broken foreclosure process" in the state.

The DFS regulates seven of the 11 companies in the agreement, said spokesman Matthew Anderson, and is reaching out to others.

JPMorgan Chase, one of the top lenders on Long Island for zombie homes, will not join the agreement, company spokesman Jason Lobo said. "We are confident that our existing property preservation practices meet the recent measures" in the state agreement, he said in a statement.

Lawsky called Chase's decision "disappointing" but said the agency would talk with bank representatives again.

Anderson said the agreement creates uniformity of property maintenance practices in the banking industry. "It's really a mixed bag and some do a better job than others, so our goal was to raise the overall standards," he said.

Linda Armyn, senior vice president of Bethpage Federal Credit Union, which is taking part in the deal, said properties are more likely to keep their value if maintained.

"If everybody agreed to take part in this agreement, then it keeps the properties up and it keeps the value up, so why wouldn't we take part in this?" Armyn said, adding that Bethpage has no zombie houses in its portfolio but joined with the state anyway. "It's the right thing to do in the communities that we serve."

A copy of the agreement is at

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