By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
RAVENA — What are zombie properties and what can municipalities do about them?
At a recent meeting of the RCS Community Business Association, Christopher Cech, assistant corporation counsel for the city of Albany’s Department of Law, outlined what “zombie” properties are and how municipalities can deal with them.
“There is a 2016 act that was passed that was largely influenced by the mortgage crisis in 2008,” Cech told the group.
The New York Zombie Law was enacted in 2016 to enable municipalities to take action against mortgage lenders that don’t sufficiently maintain properties that are vacant or abandoned, and can impose fines of up to $500 a day after a court hearing proving the Zombie Law applies.
“This law is a very powerful enforcement mechanism for counties with regard to vacant properties around the area,” Cech said. “What it does is it imposes some very strict enforcement mechanisms on bad mortgage lenders. Bad mortgage lenders are big banks that aren’t taking care of abandoned properties the way they should.”
While the law can be applied to properties with mortgages, it does not apply to properties that are vacant but are owned outright by the property owner. Several vacant buildings in the village, on Main Street, have not been in use for many years but the Zombie Law would not apply if there is no mortgage on the property.
The law requires first-lien property owners to secure and maintain vacant and abandoned one- to four-family properties, and requires the mortgaging company to register the property with the state’s Department of Financial Service’s vacant registration list. The law also imposes an expedited foreclosure mechanism that makes it easier for the banks to foreclose on abandoned properties.
The goal of the Zombie Law was to help communities deal with eyesore properties.
“It is to help communities that are suffering from vacant properties that cause blight in a community and it sends a message to other people that we are not OK with living with blighted properties,” Cech said.
There are a large number of such properties in the city of Albany, Cech said, and the law has been used to address some of them.
“Every community suffers from blight,” Cech said. “Every community suffers from this, so this is a tool that is meant to empower municipalities to be able to take back parts of their towns.”
The law is enforced by the state’s Department of Financial Services and gives the municipality a mechanism to take legal action against mortgage lenders that are not living up to their responsibility to secure and maintain the abandoned property, he said.
In Ravena, properties with violations against the village’s code can be fined up to $200 a day, but those that are subject to the Zombie Law can be fined up to $500 for every day the violation is not resolved, Cech noted.
While it doesn’t solve all problems related to abandoned or vacant properties, it is another mechanism that is available, he said.
“This law is not the be all, end all. It is another tool communities can use,” Cech said.
For the law to apply, the property must be a one- to four-family residential vacant and abandoned property; there can be a commercial use to the property as well, as long as there is a residence at the site. Some properties are exempt, such as those that are used by the owner for a portion of the year or those that are under construction.
The municipality also has to provide the court with evidence of a lack of occupancy, such as mail piling up, overgrown or dead vegetation, accumulation of trash, the absence of window coverings such as curtains or blinds, and missing or broken windows, among others.
Maintaining an abandoned property is expensive for the lender, so they will want to avoid falling under the Zombie Law procedures, Cech said.
“One of the reasons they have these zombie properties in the first place is because houses were languishing in foreclosure for years and years and years,” he said. “This incentivizes mortgage companies to speed up this process, because they don’t want this to happen — they want to get the property into the hands of someone who is going to take care of it.”