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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Land banks offer hope for zombie homes

This board-up home sits in Levittown on Oct.

This board-up home sits in Levittown on Oct. 2, 2014. Credit: Chuck Fadely

Here's one way to kill a few zombies.

On Monday, Nassau County lawmakers approved County Executive Edward Mangano's proposal to create a land bank to help ease the problem of zombie homes abandoned by owners during foreclosure proceedings.

Newsday highlighted the plight of communities and neighbors left to deal with such properties which -- like gaps created by knocked-out teeth -- are unsightly and expensive to fix.

As of May, and in Nassau alone, there were 1,956 such properties, according to RealtyTrac, a national real estate tracking company. And across Long Island, according to a Newsday series on zombie homes, municipalities last year spent at least $3.2 million for cleanup, board-up and demolition costs.

With Monday's vote, Nassau -- pending approval by Empire State Development, the state's chief economic development arm -- gains another valuable weapon in the fight to make the properties viable again. Land banks, which are nonprofit corporations, can buy and spend money to buy and maintain such sites to return them to use.

Yes, lawmakers -- to the consternation of Democrats in the legislature -- passed a proposal that did not specifically require creation of affordable housing as the land bank's first priority.

But that doesn't mean the bank can't fulfill that purpose.

In Suffolk, which has had a program since 2013, the land bank is working with an impressive number of agencies to rehabilitate zombies to ease the region's affordable housing crunch. Among Suffolk's partners: The Long Island Housing Partnership; Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk; Long Island Community Housing Innovations, a nonprofit that provides housing services to low- and moderate-income residents; and the Community Development Corp. of Long Island, a nonprofit housing agency.

Nassau would do well to enlist such allies, too. One key will be appointment of the best land bank board members Mangano and Republican and Democratic lawmakers can find.

In Suffolk, the land bank has worked across town lines to compile lists of abandoned properties, confirm ownership and deal with tax delinquent properties, which can be auctioned off by the county rather than going through the state's lengthy foreclosure process.

Suffolk, again, working across town lines, identified 11 properties that had generated the most complaints by neighbors and made acquiring them a priority. One tack that worked: Bundling properties and making their common owner -- a bank or sometimes a servicer who manages the mortgage for lenders -- an offer.

In some cases. the homes can be rehabbed and resold to private owners at market value. In others, they can be rehabbed and made affordable.

But beware. It takes funding for land banks to kill zombies. And while the state, through Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, has made such funding available, there are more zombies than available dollars.

Long Island had more zombie homes than any other region in New York State, with almost 4,300 as of last month, according to RealtyTrac; nationwide, Suffolk ranks fourth and Nassau eighth.

Two weeks ago, state officials announced an increase in the number of mortgage companies agreeing to do their part by, among other things, securing zombie properties with locks, boarding windows, and checking every 30 days for problems.

That should help slow things down, until the land banks -- and, at some point, a reinvigorated local real estate market -- combine to kill them off.

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