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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Uphill fight on ‘zombie’ properties

By Sara Foss
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Much as I enjoy living in upstate New York, the region is not without its flaws.
And winter seems to expose these flaws in a way that summer doesn’t.
One of the things I most appreciate about urban living is being able to walk pretty much anywhere I want to go. However, it becomes much harder to walk around when it snows or ices over. Exacerbating the problem is a plethora of abandoned buildings. All it takes to turn a pleasant walk into a laborious chore is one vacant property that nobody is bothering to maintain.
There are about 1,000 vacant houses in Schenectady, and many of them are in foreclosure. Their owners have departed, leaving the properties at great risk of falling into disrepair, attracting squatters, catching on fire and becoming a huge blight upon their neighborhood. Unshoveled sidewalks are the least of the problems they cause.
A new law proposed by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman would make lenders responsible for delinquent properties after they are abandoned, rather than at the end of an often-lengthy foreclosure process. According to the real estate information company RealtyTrac, foreclosing on a home in New York takes an average of 1,029 days — longer than any other state in the U.S.
But as the Gazette’s Kathleen Moore reported in a Sunday article about the problems caused by abandoned houses in foreclosure, it can take just three weeks for a perfectly good home to fall apart after it is abandoned. She told the story of a house that was heavily damaged when a homeless couple moved in, cut out the copper pipes and sold them, which filled the basement with water and destroyed the electrical system.
In the decade-plus that I’ve lived in the Capital Region, there’s been little progress on the issue of abandoned buildings.
Every once in a while one of them collapses, resulting in a lot of hand-wringing and concerned comments from elected officials. A common complaint is that there’s little a municipality can do to force bad property owners to maintain their properties, other than fine them. By making lenders responsible for the condition of properties under their control, Schneiderman’s bill seeks to prevent abandoned houses from deteriorating to the point where they’re not worth saving.
I’d love to see vacant properties kept in better shape and I appreciate what Schneiderman is trying to accomplish.
But I’m curious to learn more about how the attorney general’s bill would work in practice.
For one thing, it seems unlikely that the banks are just going to roll over and allow a bill making them responsible for thousands of derelict properties to be made law without putting up a fight.
And even if the bill is passed, how will it be enforced?
Under the attorney general’s proposal, the state would create a database of
so-called “zombie” houses and also require mortgage holders to notify homeowners who are three months behind on their mortgages that they have the right to stay in their homes until ordered to leave by a court. Banks that do not register an abandoned house would be fined, possibly $1,000 a day for each property that is not in compliance. In addition, Schneiderman is expected to propose a separate bill to increase the number of land banks, which pay to rehabilitate vacant properties, in the state to 20 from 10.
All of that sounds good.
But is it enough to get the banks to do what Schneiderman wants them to do?
In a recent article on Schneiderman’s effort to crackdown on “zombie” homes, the New York Times warned that the attorney general is facing a tough fight. “This will not be easy, in part because banks, homeowners and city officials often disagree on what constitutes abandonment,” the article notes.
I’m wondering what banks would find more onerous — paying a daily fine or paying to maintain scores of abandoned homes?
Depending on the location and condition of the house, I wouldn’t be surprised if some banks opted to pay the fine. Of course, that’s assuming Schneiderman’s bill makes it out of committee, is passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Given the power wielded by banks, that seems far from certain.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.

 

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