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‘Zombie houses’ bring nightmares for villages, neighbors

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 25 March 2014 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers – The village of Albion has 10 to 15 “zombie houses” that have been left abandoned after residents were foreclosed on by a bank. The banks often fail to maintain the sites. The top photo shows 347 West State St., Albion.

Just down the street at 327 West State St. stands another abandoned house.

Another abandoned house in Albion stands at 324 West Park St.

They are called the biggest problem properties in residential neighborhoods locally. So-called “zombie houses” are abandoned homes and the owners of the buildings, typically banks that let the sites sit in limbo for years, are hard to pinpoint.

There are thousands of these abandoned properties state-wide, and at least a couple dozen in Orleans County. The issue has caught the attention of State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who wants state legislation that would require mortgage lenders to take responsibility for estimated 15,000 abandoned properties statewide.

The attorney general also plans to create a statewide registry that would allow municipalities to track abandoned homes and enforce local codes.

Local code enforcement officers welcome any help from the state in going after the owners of the properties and requiring them to maintain the sites.

“It’s a huge problem,” said Marty Busch, the code enforcement officer in Medina. “It’s very hard to track down the owner, whether it’s a bank or a mortgage company.”

The villages often will board up broken windows and have the DPW mow lawns. A fee is added to the property’s taxes, and billed to the owner.

The village of Albion billed $22,350 for mowing last year for the multiple trips at neglected properties. The village also billed $1,970 for boarding up fees.

Ron Vendetti, Albion’s code enforcement officer, said the houses are his biggest headache because there often isn’t a clear owner or contact person.

“I write the violations and some of the banks may assign a property manager, but some don’t have them,” he said. “You don’t have anyone you can deal with.”

He sees houses that could be sold sitting empty for several years, often falling into disrepair. Some people have expressed interest in buying the houses, but Vendetti said the owner – the banks or mortgage companies – don’t move on a sale.

Vendetti and Busch both think the banks lost track of what they actually own because there was so much mortgage selling among the entities in the mid to late 2000s.

“It’s a consistent problem, but the banks don’t give a rat’s a– about us,” Vendetti said. “People want some of these houses but they go nowhere.”

Schneiderman wants to change that, and is proposing stiff financial penalties for banks or mortgage companies that are unresponsive. If a bank fails to register an abandoned house, it could be fined as much as $1,000 a day.

The attorney general also wants to double the size of land banks to 20 in the state. These nonprofit organizations could acquire abandoned or foreclosed properties and then decide whether to rebuild, demolish or redesign them.

Vendetti and Busch both estimated there are 10 to 15 “zombie houses” in both Albion and Medina. Vendetti is also the code officer in the village of Holley and he said there are at least four there, plus eight houses left vacant from a chemical leak at Diaz Chemical more than a decade ago.

The zombie houses are easy to spot. Drive around on garbage day and they don’t have garbage out, Vendetti said. Many are missing curtains. In the winter there are no footprints in the snow. When the warm weather comes, the grass will grow wild.

For neighbors, the houses bring worry. Some of them have had squatters, Vendetti said.

Busch welcomed the attention from the attorney general. He wants to see the issue become a bigger priority.

“It’s extremely difficult just to establish the owner,” Busch said. “If it’s an out-of-state bank or mortgage company, it’s hard to find someone who even knows about the property. Half the time I don’t think they know what they have.”