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Hempstead Town tightens its laws on vacant homes and businesses

A vacant property on Austin Boulevard in Island

A vacant property on Austin Boulevard in Island Park on Oct. 6, 2016. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Hempstead Town officials have created a registry for vacant homes and businesses where owners of unoccupied buildings must pay fees and submit a plan for the structure’s future use.

The goal is not to punish landlords, Town Supervisor Anthony Santino said, but rather to “incentivize” them to get their buildings — both residential and commercial — occupied as soon as possible. Vacant homes and businesses make downtown areas and neighborhoods unappealing and detract from the character of a community, he said.

“We don’t want dilapidated storefronts sprinkled throughout our downtown,” Santino said.

Zombie homes and businesses — defined as those in the foreclosure process that have been vacated by their owners, though the banks have not yet taken title — have been a hot issue for New Yorkers recently, especially on Long Island where communities have spent nearly $3 million on upkeep of vacant houses because they drag down property values.

In May, the Hempstead Town Board passed an anti-zombie measure requiring banks to post a $25,000 deposit upfront for residential property and $35,000 for commercial property — one of the highest fees for banks on the island — toward the town’s maintenance costs. The deposit is returned if the owner maintains the property properly. Most Long Island towns collect the upkeep fees through the foreclosed homeowner’s property taxes years later.

In June, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced a statewide hotline for residents to report vacant, abandoned homes in their neighborhoods and add them to a state registry. There are no penalties associated with the state’s measures.

Hempstead’s new legislation goes beyond the town’s May measure, and encompasses both zombie properties and vacant buildings not yet in the foreclosure process. The new law requires landlords to register with the town within 30 days of the structure becoming vacant, pay a deposit and submit a plan to either demolish the building, keep the property secured and properly maintained, or detail how the structure will rehabilitated within a year.

The owner also must pay annual, nonrefundable fees — in addition to the $25,000 or $35,000 deposit — while the building remains vacant, which the legislation said will be related to administrative costs for the registry, as well as monitoring and inspecting the site. The fees begin at $500 for the first year and increase by $500 each year until hitting a $3,000 maximum.

“The focus again is not to punish or be draconian in any way,” Santino said. “It’s just to create an incentive, a dollars and cents incentive for the owners of vacant properties to address getting the properties back into productive use.”

Santino believes some properties are intentionally left vacant, or rents are advertised as unrealistically high, so landlords can use them as tax write-offs.

“Some of these buildings are in great locations where you’d think you could find a viable tenant,” he said.

The Town Board passed the registry unanimously.

-Hempstead Town’s new legislation targets both zombie properties that are already in the foreclosure process, as well as vacant structures that are not.

-The law now requires landlords to register with the town 30 days after the structure becomes vacant and pay annual fees while it is unoccupied. Owners must also submit a plan that fulfills one of these options: demolish the structure, secure and properly maintain the property, or explain how it will be rehabilitated within a year.

-The fees begin at $500 for the first year and increase each year by $500 until the owner reaches a $3,000 maximum. The fees are non-refundable.

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