BY ERIC T. SCHNEIDERMAN
Earlier this year, I proposed legislation that would combat a wave of zombies plaguing too many communities across our New York State. From the Bronx to Buffalo, cities and towns in New York have been plagued by what are commonly called zombie properties. These are homes that residents abandon — often after they have received a foreclosure notice – which then languish, uncared-for, until the foreclosure process is complete. Here in New York, which has the longest average time to complete a foreclosure in the country, this can take months or years.
Despite federal rules and regulations that clearly require lenders and mortgage servicers to maintain many of these vacant properties, too often we have seen mortgage holders and their agents allow these homes to deteriorate.
Abandoned homes become magnets for vandalism and crime. They drag down the property values of neighboring homes. They drain municipal coffers and place an undue burden on localities that must pay for extra code enforcement, fire safety and police protection – resources that are already stretched thin. They make it impossible for communities in distress to get back on their feet.
Today, the mayors and town supervisors of 16 of New York’s major municipalities released a letter calling for swift passage of the Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act – also known as the Zombie Kill Bill — which would provide those communities with the tools to kill off zombie properties for good.
Take the town of Newburgh, in Orange County. About 10 percent of the homes in this town of 30,000 people are believed to be abandoned – properties that the locals call abandominiums. Prostitutes, drug addicts and vagrants take them over – until they catch fire. Some burned-out shells of homes have been there for years, dropping debris that damages neighboring houses. Both Newburgh’s mayor and fire chief told The New York Times that unless the banks take action, the crisis will only worsen.
Compounding the problem: Local governments often cannot find out who owns the property, what stage of foreclosure it is in and which company holds the mortgage. Without answers to these questions, lawenforcement is nearly impossible.
The Zombie Kill Bill would require mortgage holders and loan servicers to register, secure and maintain abandoned properties the moment they become vacant, taking the financial pressure off cities and towns.
The bill would require that families in distress be notified that they have the right to stay in their homes until a court orders them to vacate the premises.
The bill would create a statewide registry requiring mortgage holders to register their zombie properties with the Attorney General’s office. The data would be accessible to local municipalities and code enforcement units, enabling them to carry out strategic and efficient code enforcement policies.
Data from the foreclosure database RealtyTrac show that there are more than 15,000 zombie properties around the state. But research by my office suggests that the numbers may actually be much higher. No one really knows – and municipalities and regulators don’t have the time or the resources to chase down the paperwork to figure out which properties are zombies and who is responsible for them.
The Vacant and Abandoned Property Registry would end the guesswork.
The registry would also have a toll-free hotline, so community residents can report suspected vacant and abandoned properties – and callers can get information about the status of registered properties, the mortgage holder’s identity and who is responsible for maintaining the home.
Abandoned homes are everyone’s problem, afflicting communities all over the state. Leaving zombie properties to rot is unfair to neighbors who pay their taxes and maintain their homes. It is unfair to local governments that are forced to spend money they can’t spare making sure these derelict houses don’t deteriorate even further.
Passing the Zombie Kill Bill is a no brainer. Let’s pass the Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act this session.
Eric T. Schneiderman is the NYS Attorney General. This op-ed was first published by the Huffington Post