Maintaining abandoned, neglected, crumbling homes is a time-consuming and costly business for Long Island municipalities.
Officials said the number of decaying properties began to rise sharply after the housing crisis took hold in 2007 -- and it's only gotten worse.
"There are more houses than I've ever seen before . . . more homes that are being neglected," Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray said.
A yearlong Newsday analysis found that towns and villages across Long Island last year spent at least $3.2 million to clean, board up and demolish thousands of neglected homes. Most of the blighted properties are what have become known as "zombie houses" -- homes that are being foreclosed on by financial institutions and the owner has walked away.
Town and village workers try to track down the financial institutions involved and then push them to tend to the properties. Bank representatives, however, say that without holding title to the property, they are limited in what they can do.
'A pervasive problem'
"What was an occasional problem here and there at the turn of the century has become a pervasive problem," said Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine, who estimates there are about 2,000 vacant and blighted homes in the town.
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The total number of abandoned houses on Long Island is difficult to calculate, officials said, especially after superstorm Sandy in 2012 left many homes at least temporarily empty. Municipalities often have different definitions of what constitutes an abandoned home and don't keep a separate count of zombie properties.
But Long Island officials agree the number is in the thousands -- and much higher than statistics indicate.
California-based RealtyTrac, which compiles real estate data, identified 4,044 zombie homes in Nassau and Suffolk -- nearly 24 percent of the state's total of 16,777 -- as of Jan. 31. RealtyTrac's methodology focuses on active foreclosures and automatically removes any home that is still in the process beyond the state's average foreclosure time, which in New York is 934 days.
However, residents and local officials point to properties that have been stuck in the state court's foreclosure process for five years or more, homes that they said would be missing from RealtyTrac's data.
The longer the houses sit empty, the more problems develop.
Municipal workers are largely limited to outside cosmetic improvements, such as mowing lawns, trimming bushes and removing trash.
Making neighborhood stable
"We're eliminating all the visible immediate problems so the house remains stable and that will make the neighborhood stable," said Lindenhurst Village Clerk-Treasurer Shawn Cullinane.
Abandoned homes that are not secure -- and easily accessed by children and squatters -- can be boarded up. And if an engineer determines a house is structurally unsafe, state law allows municipalities to demolish it.
"We have a responsibility to try to board them up, cut the grass, maintain them," said Valley Stream Mayor Edwin Fare. "You're trying to protect the integrity of the village, the suburban community we live in, but we have to follow the law. We just can't arbitrarily say 'their grass is high' and go on their property and cut their lawn."
Town and village board members each month vote to approve dozens of resolutions authorizing clean-ups, board-ups and demolitions. They then seek to recover money spent by adding the costs to the abandoned property owner's tax bill.
With foreclosures, the tax bills are paid by the bank. If left unpaid, the county could seize the property. Officials said they eventually recoup the money but getting those funds repaid can take more than a year.
"Any time you have to lay out that kind of money, it is something that we shouldn't have to do," said Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer. "But I view it as an investment in our communities in that it's important that we make sure we're keeping these properties secure, safe, cleaned up." The town spent more than $900,000 on blighted properties in 2014.
Romaine said it takes at least 18 months for Brookhaven to recoup clean-up costs through the additional tax payments. The town does not get reimbursed for "hidden costs," such as legal expenses incurred by town attorneys attempting to locate owners of derelict homes.
"We could be cutting down our expenses or using them in other ways," Romaine said of the money spent on abandoned homes.
The town does not have enough money to tear down all houses that should be demolished, Romaine said. Mortgage tax revenue from property sales in Brookhaven have declined to about $9 million to $10 million per year from about $36 million annually a few years ago.
Officials also struggle with using municipal work crews to maintain vacant homes.
"Our staff could be addressing a lot of other issues but because of the number of [abandoned] homes, that staff time has been diverted," Schaffer said.
Ed Buturla, lead inspector with Babylon's environmental control department, said his workers try to keep tabs on the homes they know have had problems, but the numbers have become too great. "We do patrols, but we only have so much manpower to use," he said.
For villages, with smaller budgets and fewer employees than town governments, the work needed to address blighted homes can become cost prohibitive.
"It's something we shouldn't have to deal with, and it's something we have to put our resources in," said Hempstead Village Mayor Wayne J. Hall Sr. "If we can get the banks to do their part . . . that would take a lot off of our village." Hempstead spent about $100,000 on neglected homes last year.
Mastic Beach Village incorporated in 2010 partly in an attempt to crack down on code violations and absentee owners. "One reason I voted for Mastic Beach to become a village was to get problems like this done quick, but that hasn't been the case," said Brenda Richardson, 55, who lives across the street from an abandoned home gutted by fire. "We keep hearing from the village that it's going to be torn down, but we keep getting disappointed because nothing happens."
There are about 250 abandoned homes in the village, Mayor Bill Biondi said, and officials are trying to keep up.
"This is great what we're doing," he said of village efforts to maintain the neglected homes. "But what kind of long-term effects does it have?"
Municipal officials said that in cases where a bank is involved, they are as aggravated as the residents.
"I get professionally frustrated as well as personally frustrated because I live here too," said Babylon Town Supervisor Schaffer.
Despite the strain, the money and staff time must be spent, officials said.
Residents "want to be able to say they have a certain quality of life, they want to protect the value of their homes," Cullinane of Lindenhurst said. "So if we do not help eradicate this problem of . . . homes that are unkempt, then the entire thing will spread to surrounding houses and whole neighborhoods will be affected."
With Deon J. Hampton