The total number of abandoned foreclosed homes on Long Island is rising, highlighting an epidemic that costs municipalities millions of dollars, lowers property values and endangers first responders.
Long Island continues to lead New York State in abandoned foreclosed homes, according to new data from RealtyTrac, a California company that analyzes snapshots of real estate information. Suffolk County has the fourth highest number of these homes in the nation, climbing from seventh place just three months ago. Nassau moved from ninth place to eighth place.
The latest data show that on May 28, a sample day in the second quarter of 2015, Suffolk and Nassau respectively had 2,333 and 1,956 abandoned homes in foreclosure -- referred to as "zombie" houses -- the two highest county totals in the state. This is up from 2,084 in Suffolk -- a 12 percent increase -- and down from 1,960 in Nassau on a sample day in the first quarter. Overall, New York had 17,042 zombie houses.
The increase highlights the scourge of zombie houses on Long Island that Newsday and News 12 Long Island revealed in a series of stories in March. The yearlong investigation found that Long Island municipalities in 2014 spent more than $3.2 million to maintain vacant homes that had fallen into disrepair and that zombie houses have cost Long Island at least $295 million in depreciated home values.
The series found that the neglected homes -- which stretch from Levittown to the Hamptons -- damage the quality of life for neighbors, attracting squatters, vermin, garbage and crime and placing the lives of first responders at risk when the homes they enter are structurally unsound.
Homes in foreclosure in New York lose 26 percent of their market value when they become abandoned, going from an average of $389,451 to $287,541, according to RealtyTrac. The loss is the highest among the 44 states studied by the company.
"The trends we're seeing in New York, especially Nassau and Suffolk counties, is counter to the overall national trend," where zombie numbers are down, said Daren Blomquist, RealtyTrac vice president. But it's "not necessarily a surprise" given that overall foreclosures on Long Island have also been consistently increasing, creating a "bigger pool of properties that could fall into this zombie category," he said.
Town's own initiatives
Bay Shore, Brentwood, Hempstead, Freeport and Central Islip lead New York State in the number of zombie houses.
With three of those communities in her town, Islip Supervisor Angie Carpenter said the town has begun initiatives to combat zombie houses that fall into disrepair. They include a partnership with Touro Law Center in Central Islip in which law students will work with the town's legal department to research homes to find out homeowner and foreclosure information. Municipal workers from across Long Island told Newsday that they often spend countless hours simply trying to track down which financial institution services the mortgage.
Responsibility for the maintenance of abandoned homes in foreclosure has been hotly contested, with banks and mortgage lenders insisting that they are limited in what they can do on a property before they hold title.
State Department of Financial Services officials announced last month that they had reached an agreement with 11 banks and mortgage companies to adhere to a set of "best practices" in regularly maintaining abandoned houses that are in foreclosure.
That deal doesn't go far enough, said some state and local officials who are hoping to augment the agreement with legislation proposed by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. That bill, which is being considered in the Senate and Assembly, would, among other things, create a registry of zombie houses and impose fines of $1,000 per day on financial institutions for failing to register a property or maintain it.
Mayors back legislation
On Wednesday, 29 mayors from across the state -- including 10 from Long Island -- sent a letter to state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) urging them to support Schneiderman's New York State Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act of 2015. There is only one week left in the legislative session for lawmakers to enact the bill.
"The numbers are clear -- zombie homes are eating away at Long Island neighborhoods more than ever before," Schneiderman said in a statement. "We need legislation that will hold banks accountable and provide local governments with the resources they need to repair and revive these homes block-by-block."
Those in the banking industry point to the state's lengthy foreclosure process as the biggest obstacle to getting homes back on the market. Unlike some states, where foreclosure can take as little as 60 days, in New York there is a judicial process that lingers for years. The average was 934 days last year, according to RealtyTrac, but as of March it had skyrocketed up to 1,475 days, the longest foreclosure time in the country.
However, Blomquist said that in March New York completed 987 foreclosures, the most the state had done in a single month since October 2008. The combination of the lengthier average and the higher volume of completed foreclosures indicates "that the banks are finally starting to push through some of these that have been sitting for a long time," he said. "That's good news in the long run for the zombie foreclosure problem."
For those who live near zombie houses, it's more than the lingering process and continuing blight that worries them.
Jane Cottle, 80, of Baldwin said a home on her block has been vacant for seven years and is so full of overgrown weeds that it's "not only a zombie but a werewolf and a vampire too." She said her children have asked her to move in with them but she fears she will not be able to sell her house.
"I can't take care of this house anymore," she said. "I would love in the worst possible way to sell. It breaks my heart."