Municipalities have to shoulder the responsibility for maintaining zombie homes. They have little choice. Communities can't afford to have neighborhoods overwhelmed by homes abandoned by their owners and left empty for the three years it can take to complete foreclosure. But municipalities need help with the upfront cost, and a way to eventually recoup that expense from the owners or mortgage lenders.
Zombie homes are a blight. They lure thieves, rats and other vermin, are often choked with weeds, are an invitation to squatters and generally become eyesores that ruin the quality of life for neighbors, undermine public safety and send property values through the floor.
Communities suffer when that happens. And Suffolk, with 2,080 zombie homes as of Jan. 31, and Nassau with 1,960, are an epicenter of the epidemic -- according to a recent Newsday and News 12 series.
In a perfect world, homeowners would maintain the properties. Unfortunately, there is little chance that beleaguered owners -- many of whom have left Long Island -- can be found and forced to maintain underwater properties they dumped as financial losers they could no longer afford. People who handed the keys to the bank are not going to cut the grass.
State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has proposed legislation that would require mortgage lenders and servicers to identify, secure and maintain vacant homes in foreclosure. Those that fail to comply would be fined $1,000 a day, with the money going to defray the expense of maintaining the properties. The homes would have to be registered with the state, making it easier for municipalities to locate the responsible parties.
It would be good business for banks to protect their investment by keeping zombie homes on their books in good repair. But while some municipalities around the country have enacted duty-to-maintain laws, forcing mortgage lenders to maintain houses they don't own could be legally dicey. So, as a last resort, municipalities are on the hook to maintain the properties.
The Town of Babylon has a program that avoids the potential pitfalls. When an abandoned home falls into disrepair, town officials attempt to notify the owner and the lender. If neither is found, or they fail to step up to maintain the property, the town does the work. It cuts the grass, checks for health and safety violations, works with police and the courts to remove squatters, and boards up doors and windows if necessary to secure the homes.
To recoup the cost, and a $500 fine imposed each time work is done, the town puts a lien on the home's property tax bill. Mortgage lenders often pay the taxes on zombie homes, even if they don't maintain them. If they don't pay the taxes, the lien ensures that the town and Suffolk County recoup the money when the house is sold.
A strong housing market would be the best cure for the outbreak of zombie homes. But containing the scourge and making sure taxpayers aren't left with the bill is the next best thing.