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State, local governments search for solutions to tackle abandoned home crisis

Zombie houses: Search for solutions

Zombie houses: Search for solutions

Local and state governments are developing new ways to fight Long Island's abandoned home crisis. Municipalities are creating registries of vacant homes and new laws to tackle blight, while the state is attempting to hold financial institutions more accountable for homes in foreclosure that become eyesores or hazards.

Newsday's yearlong analysis of the problem found that towns and villages across the Island last year spent at least $3.2 million to clean, board up and demolish abandoned homes. Most of the properties are what have become known as zombie houses -- those being foreclosed on by financial institutions and the owner has walked away.

Four Suffolk towns and three Nassau villages have established vacant-home registries. Depending on the location, banks have between 15 and 120 days to register empty houses with the municipality or face fines between $100 to $2,500.

Some towns have focused on trying to control blight before a house deteriorates to the point the town has to maintain the property.

Huntington, which in 2014 spent nearly $31,000 on cleanups and board-ups, last year assessed 61 properties more than $182,000 for violating its 2012 blight law.

The town assigns points based on the severity of the problem. For example, a house would receive five points for broken shutters and 50 points for having a fire hazard. When the house reaches 100 points, the owner has to agree to fix the problems. If the owner does not enter into an agreement with the town within 30 days, the town adds a $2,500 fee to the property's tax bill.

Brookhaven officials in December approved a point system to determine whether a house should be repaired, boarded up or demolished. A municipal court hearing is scheduled if the house isn't brought into compliance. If the owner fails to appear, Brookhaven could repair or demolish the property.

"That is a desperate measure from a town that is overwhelmed by these problems," Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said. Over the past year, the town has torn down eight of the "Dirty Dozen" homes scheduled to be demolished because they are structurally unsound.

Babylon Town departments are working together to create a digital mapping system for abandoned homes and streamline the process of monitoring blight. The work now involves five or six departments and is their most complicated task, said John Cifelli, Babylon's director of operations.

Deputy Supervisor Tony Martinez said the proliferation of abandoned homes in the town -- the number has reached nearly 200 -- led officials to find new ways to address the problem. By mapping the homes and building a database that includes the property history, Babylon officials hope to identify blight at the neighborhood level while looking for patterns to prevent more abandoned homes.

"This came out of the frustration with all the clean-ups we do, all the calls that we get," Martinez said.

Towns and villages also have been working to improve the aesthetics of boarded-up houses. Islip crews paint the plywood a neutral gray and Babylon Town workers match boards to the home's exterior color. Islip workers also have started boarding up dilapidated homes from the inside and outside to try to prevent boards from being easily removed.

This week, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and Assemb. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) announced the launch of a new online database where residents in the county can submit information and photos of abandoned homes in their neighborhoods. The county assessor's office will research the ownership of the homes and relay that information to towns and villages, which can then contact the owner or bank to bring the property up to code. The City of Long Beach is currently the only municipality that will be entering its log of abandoned homes into the database, but Mangano said he is reaching out to other municipalities to take part.

In Suffolk County, the state Supreme Court last year created a fast-track procedure for abandoned homes in foreclosure. If a municipality identifies a home as abandoned, and the homeowner has not filed any legal papers or appeared in court, the court skips the usual process of appointing a referee to calculate the amount owed. Instead, if Suffolk County District Administrative Judge C. Randall Hinrichs determines that a foreclosure sale is warranted, the judge calculates the total debt.

That can save nine months or more, a court spokesman said.

In the year since the program began, the court has identified about 400 abandoned homes in foreclosure, the spokesman said. That's 2.7 percent of Suffolk's roughly 15,000 pending foreclosures.

Nassau County's state court created a fast-track foreclosure process in mid-2013 for cases where homeowners have never shown up in court or filed any legal papers, a court spokesman said. Nassau has seen about 2,000 fast-tracked cases out of 9,700 pending foreclosures.

At the state level, attempts are being made to speed up the state's foreclosure process, which averages 934 days, and hold banks responsible for maintenance on vacant homes.

Assemb. John T. McDonald III (D-Cohoes) is drafting legislation that would create a fast-track foreclosure process for abandoned homes with delinquent tax bills.

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman last month proposed legislation to force banks and mortgage companies to start maintaining homes as soon as they become vacant and not wait until there is a foreclosure judgment. The proposed bill also establishes an inspection schedule for banks to determine if a property is being occupied.

The legislation has not been introduced. It is an expansion of a bill Schneiderman proposed last year that died in both the Assembly and Senate.

Schneiderman told Newsday the legislation "is very much targeted at helping the local governments on Long Island deal with this really, really damaging issue for many communities."

As part of the proposed Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act, banks would have to electronically register vacant homes in the foreclosure process with the state.

"Until we have a statewide registry, we're never going to have accurate numbers," Schneiderman said.

Data from California-based RealtyTrac, which compiles real estate statistics, show 4,044 zombie houses on Long Island, a number Schneiderman said is "low."

The Vacant and Abandoned Property Registry would be supplemented by a toll-free hotline that residents could use to report suspected abandoned homes. The hotline also could be used to gather information on registered properties, including their status and who is responsible for maintaining them.

"The problem with zombie properties right now is that the neighbors can't figure out who's in charge. Most times local government can't figure out who actually holds the mortgage," Schneiderman said. "So this is going to force, in one bill, transparency about who owns what properties in the state of New York."

If the bill is enacted, failure by banks to comply would result in fines of $1,000 per day for each instance of failing to register a property or failing to maintain it. The money would be directed to a fund for local governments to hire additional code enforcement officers.

It is unclear how much support Schneiderman's bill will get. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Garden City-based attorney Bruce Bergman, who represents banks, said the attorney general's proposal would impose potentially enormous financial burdens on lenders -- not just the cost of maintenance, but liability for hazardous conditions and fires. Bergman said it's not always clear whether a house has been abandoned, nor is it clear how often lenders would need to inspect homes to make sure they are in good condition.

Schneiderman's proposal would force lenders to maintain properties for years even though they do not own the homes, and it would expose lenders to charges of trespassing, said Marianne Collins, executive director of the New York Mortgage Bankers Association. "How much do we want to drain the assets of the lender?" Collins said. "Rates will be higher, closing costs will be higher, because lenders have to stay in business."

If New York fast-tracked foreclosures of abandoned homes, "the process would be over in 60 days instead of three years," she said.

State Sen. Tom Croci (R-Sayville), the former Islip Town supervisor, said he is not sure if he will support Schneiderman's legislation but added he will take "a really hard look at it."

Croci said he plans to find other ways the state can help combat problems associated with vacant dilapidated homes.

"I've seen the complexity, I've seen the difficulties that towns have," he said. "If there's a way from the state government perspective . . . that we can give the towns the tools to more effectively deal with this situation, I'd love to be in a position to investigate how to do that."

Officials in Nassau and Suffolk counties have expressed support for Schneiderman's bill.

"Anything to make these banks not hide behind the excuse that they're not the legal owner of the property," Martinez said.

"We need as many tools in the arsenal as we possibly can get," Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray said. "I think it [Schneiderman's proposal] could go a long way in at least keeping the facade of these foreclosed homes in decent shape."

The legislation would bring much-needed help to smaller municipalities, said Valley Stream Justice Robert Bogle, who handles village summonses that are given to banks and homeowners and also reviews foreclosure cases as a supervising court attorney in Nassau County Court. A state registry would "be really helpful to the little villages and towns throughout New York State that don't have the manpower to do research on these matters," Bogle said.

But the number of abandoned homes across Long Island and their associated maintenance costs steadily climb each year, and municipal workers often have to make repeat visits to properties.

Douglas Bunge, 66, lives near an abandoned home in Bay Shore. The house -- across the street from an elementary school -- had become a hangout for trespassers, he said, and the Town of Islip boarded it up inside and out. But within weeks, someone ripped out the window frames and removed the boards, Bunge said.

"It's a continuing problem," Bogle said. "And it could very well be a problem that will be with us for many, many years ahead."


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