Neighborhoods across Long Island are battling an epidemic of blighted, abandoned houses as municipalities spend millions of tax dollars trying to maintain structures that fester with rats, mold, weeds and squatters.
Long Island communities are littered with empty, neglected homes -- from small Cape Cod-style houses in Levittown, America's first suburb, to large Colonials in upscale Hamptons communities.
The abandoned houses ruin the quality of life for neighbors, threaten public safety and send property values plummeting.
What had been a nuisance in some municipalities intensified with the financial and housing crisis of the late 2000s when thousands of homes went into New York's nearly three-year-long foreclosure process, creating what have become known as "zombie houses." Those homes, with no owner on site and no one taking care of the property, are neither alive nor dead.
The size and scope of the abandoned-home scourge is growing so fast that it challenges municipal efforts to keep up with it. The birthplace of suburban life and one of the most expensive places to live in the United States, Long Island now has homes with manicured lawns and meticulously maintained facades sitting side by side with foot-high grass and plywood-covered windows.
And the crisis is worsening.
A yearlong Newsday analysis, using data from municipalities and RealtyTrac, a national real estate tracking company, found:
Suffolk County had 2,084 zombie homes and Nassau had 1,960 as of Jan. 31, ranking them seventh and ninth highest respectively among 2,165 counties in the United States, the most recent figures available.
Suffolk and Nassau are the top counties in New York State for zombie homes.
Long Island has the top five ZIP codes in the state for number of zombie homes.
Local municipalities last year spent at least $3.2 million to clean, maintain, board up and demolish homes in disrepair, including zombie properties.
Zombie houses have cost Long Island at least $295 million in depreciated home values, according to a real estate appraiser's analysis.
Long Island "is one of, if not the epicenter of zombie properties in the state of New York," state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman told Newsday. "This is a huge problem on Long Island."
Bank officials said the homeowner -- whether still living on the property or not -- is legally responsible for the continued maintenance through the foreclosure process. The financial institutions aren't responsible because they don't own the properties until a foreclosure judgment is issued.
But government officials and residents say the financial companies should do more to protect the properties from deteriorating.
In thousands of cases, Long Island municipalities have stepped in to ensure public safety and protect property values, using tax dollars and their own work crews to clean up, board up and tear down deteriorating abandoned houses. Even more employee time is spent trying to find the property owner or the bank to take action.
"This costs our local governments millions and millions of dollars," said Schneiderman, who in February proposed legislation that would hold banks responsible for the maintenance of empty homes in foreclosure and create a registry of zombie properties in the state. "It's a problem for local governments and it really is a problem in our efforts to revitalize the New York State housing market."
As of Jan. 31, there were 182 properties considered zombie houses in the Bay Shore ZIP code, according to data from California-based RealtyTrac, which identifies zombie homes through county foreclosure records and postal service information. Hempstead Village had 170; Brentwood 168; Freeport 142; and Central Islip 139.
Few communities are spared. In Suffolk, Holbrook had 42 zombie homes and East Northport had 27. In Nassau, Westbury had 79, Hicksville 49 and Glen Cove 36. Five are in the East Hampton ZIP code. Westhampton Beach officials on Thursday demolished the boarded-up, crumbling home of incarcerated former Suffolk Legis. George Guldi. The house had been gutted by fire in 2008 and deteriorating since then.
Officials from the towns with the highest numbers said the problem is far greater than what the narrowly defined RealtyTrac analysis shows.
"The face of Brookhaven has been scarred heavily," Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said. "It's a legacy that's going to last for us. . . . It's beyond the grasp of local government." Brookhaven spent more than $800,000 cleaning, boarding up or tearing down blighted homes in 2014.
Romaine said there's "hardly a neighborhood that remains untouched." But some communities have suffered more than others. North Bellport has 104 vacant or boarded-up houses within 1 square mile, he said.
In Islip, where the town spent more than $200,000 on abandoned homes in 2014, "there has not been a hamlet . . . that has not been affected by this," said state Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), the former Islip Town supervisor. He described the abandoned-home issue as "the great leveler in our town."
"We certainly see that there are no social or economic boundaries to this problem," Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray said, citing recent teardowns in Bellmore, Merrick and Seaford. "We've had demolitions, we've had board-ups in probably every single unincorporated area." In 2014, Hempstead spent more than $700,000 on residential properties that fell into disrepair.
Municipalities undertake work at an abandoned house for a variety of reasons: houses neglected by absentee owners; properties where ownership is in dispute; homes being rehabilitated but the financing ran out; and zombie homes in foreclosure.
Local officials and residents expressed the greatest frustration with zombie houses, blaming banks for the deterioration of the homes and neighborhood property values. Romaine called the lack of bank responsibility "a policy of not even benign neglect, just pure neglect that resulted in the degradation of neighborhoods."
Representatives of banks and mortgage companies said they try to secure properties and prevent them from becoming eyesores.
"It really doesn't help us to have a property that's in disrepair," said Tyler Smith, real estate owned and community development manager for Wells Fargo in San Francisco. "Eventually, they're going to complete the foreclosure process and [the home will] become an asset."
Municipal officials and bank representatives raise concerns about trespassing on private property to take on maintenance work, but the argument rings hollow to those living near abandoned homes.
"All we care about is that this very real problem and this blight on our community and the many blights that exist are addressed," said Pamela Ubl, 61, of Bay Shore, who has lived near an abandoned home for more than a decade. "We have a right to expect that. I don't have to tell anybody on Long Island that we pay among the highest taxes in the country."
Data analysis by Tim Healy
The thousands of abandoned houses on LI cost local governments $3.2 million last year to maintain while decreasing surrounding home values.
The zombie house epidemic was fueled by record foreclosures, yet banks have no legal responsibility to maintain them.
Many residents and local leaders consider squatters the most frightening consequence of abandoned homes.
Proposals include a law to force banks to maintain the homes to new vacant-home registries in municipalities.