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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Regional zombie housing problem calls for regional solution

An abandoned house in Levittown shown on Thursday,

An abandoned house in Levittown shown on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely

The region's zombie housing crisis is bigger than any single municipality, as last week's Newsday/News 12 Long Island series showed. Which makes it necessary to devise common mechanisms to fight the scourge on a regional level.

The Suffolk County Landbank is making a good start in that direction. And the land bank's work shows some very good reasons for the region to work together.

The land bank is a public benefit corporation that aids in the redevelopment of distressed properties. Since last summer, it has been working with Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven towns in a collaboration that could grow.

Land bank officials are learning a lot from working -- under a grant from New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman's office -- with three Suffolk towns with the county's largest numbers of zombie houses. Lesson One: The region needs to determine a common way to register and classify zombie houses.

As land bank officials discovered, Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven compiled lists of abandoned properties, but not all of them turned out to be in foreclosure. Some houses weren't abandoned at all, a check with the county clerk's office showed.

Others ended up being delinquent in taxes, rather than being in foreclosure -- an important distinction because tax-delinquent properties ultimately can be auctioned off by the county rather than being held up in the state's unusually lengthy foreclosure process.

Land bank officials, after eliminating such properties from a newly combined list, trimmed their combined list of some 200 abandoned properties in the three towns down to 112 zombie houses.

From that list, the land bank has selected 11 properties that generated the most complaints by neighbors, officials said. They're now negotiating with banks, lenders and sometimes with the servicers who manage the mortgage for lenders, about buying the properties.

The lenders are listening, officials say.

That takes us to Lesson Two:Multiple zombie houses -- sometimes -- are better than one.

"Because we are dealing with an economy of scale, there are some sales happening," said Amy Keyes, Suffolk's deputy commissioner for economic development and policy. She also is executive director of the Suffolk County Landbank.

Here's how it's working.

After Suffolk County completed the often difficult task of tracking down who was responsible for what on its combined housing list, land bank officials found banks and some other entities that were handling multiple zombie homes.

Which opened the door for the land bank to make one pitch to a single lender or their representative, for multiple zombie homes scattered across three different towns.

What will become of them? That, it turns out, is Lesson Three:Zombies can -- and should -- be used to ease the region's workforce housing crunch.

The Suffolk County Landbank is working on that challenge with the Long Island Housing Partnership, Suffolk's Habitat for Humanity, 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.

The goal is to buy or gain donations of zombie homes, then rehab and resell them at affordable prices.

But that takes funding. For the buy, the rehab, and more. Lots and lots and lots of funding.

Lesson Four: Long Island will benefit from working across municipal, government, nonprofit and other lines to stop the further deterioration of neighborhoods.

It's now time for a zombie summit, the result of which ultimately could be a comprehensive plan that builds from what individual municipalities are doing right now.

That plan could include everything from collectively lobbying the state to shorten the foreclosure process -- New York's is the fourth-longest in the nation -- to pushing the U.S. government for more housing rehab funds.

And sharing information and strategies for everything from cataloging and researching zombie properties to -- with Schneiderman's continued assistance -- getting answers back from banks.

Whatever it takes to push back the Island's zombie invasion.


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