Economic Development Coordinator, City of Jamestown
Jamestown is asking for help in finding Zombies.
Zombies are vacant properties that are left abandoned during a lengthy bank foreclosure process, according to Stephanie Wright, Economic Development Coordinator for the City of Jamestown. Jamestown officials are now applying for the city’s second Zombie and Vacant Properties Remediation and Prevention Initiative program grant.
In 2016, Jamestown took the bold step of applying for nearly $150,000 in program funding to combat Jamestown’s growing zombie property problem. Awarded the grant, the city went straight to work establishing a system to eliminate and prevent properties from becoming zombies.
New Zombie Law
New legislation passed in 2016 improved the situation. Before the Zombie Property and Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2016 (the “Zombie Law”) homeowners and lenders could both walk away from a property. Lenders frequently walked away to avoid regaining, through foreclosure, a property that was in no condition to resell. Those houses then sat vacant and decaying. They became a blight on neighborhoods because no one took responsibility for upkeep or security of the property.
With the Zombie Law now in effect, lenders must inspect, secure, maintain, and report zombie homes to the New York State Department of Financial Services (NYSDFS). Lenders must submit quarterly reports detailing efforts to secure and maintain the properties and any foreclosure proceedings underway.
Up-keep or Pay-up
Once a zombie or vacant property is reported to the NYSDFS, cities like Jamestown have the power to sue lenders who are not maintaining their property. Once the city sues, the lender can be fined $500 for every day the property stays unmaintained, or in violation of city code. This usually motivates lenders to do property maintenance during foreclosure proceedings.
The City of Jamestown hired an attorney using funds from the first Zombie and Vacant Properties Remediation and Prevention Initiative program grant to apply the Zombie Law for the benefit of Jamestown neighborhoods. In just the past year of these legal services, the city has reduced its zombie properties by 27, from 92 down to 65.
Through painstaking research and persistence by Jamestown’s attorney, zombie properties are being effectively handled. Some of the properties were acquired by the city under the Real Property Tax Law 19-A and put out to bid in an effort to find an owner to rehabilitate and occupy it. For some properties the city pursued the lenders using the provisions of the Zombie Law to warn them of outstanding violations and remind them they must correct all violations. In most cases, lenders have stepped up and improved the property, making it ready for resale.
More Grants Sought
By applying for a second Zombie program grant, Jamestown will continue to employ these vital legal services. These services also include outreach to prevent homeowners from walking away from their properties and creating a zombie situation. Referrals are made to agencies who are equipped to assist with loan modifications at the onset of financial difficulties with mortgages. If the foreclosure process has started, referrals are made to legal services provided by New York Law. The foreclosure process is a lengthy one and homeowners do not need to leave the property until a court order is issued for them to do so.
With the second Zombie program grant, Jamestown will also continue to fund its code enforcement software, MyGov. This software is a crucial element in tracking zombie and vacant houses.
When zombie and vacant properties are identified by either a concerned resident who notifies the Department of Development, or by daily neighborhood code enforcement inspections, they are entered into MyGov. This software allows code enforcement officers to access the most recent information about the progress made on the property. With diligent inspecting and access to tracking information, zombie and vacant properties have been either rehabilitated or slated for demolition.
Zombie Hunters Needed
Though the tracking system is extremely beneficial to code enforcement, it is only useful after the zombie and vacant properties have been identified. The issue the city faces in dealing with these zombie and vacant properties is first locating them. Once located, the city can then employ its code enforcement team and legal services to remediate the issues found at these properties.
Jamestown needs the help of its residents to identify abandoned properties. To support neighborhoods where these properties are located the Department of Development has created an on-line mechanism to make it easier to report abandoned houses. Residents can go to www.jamestownny.net. Under Department/Housing, click on Report a Vacant House. Residents can report a zombie or vacant house in their neighborhood. This is a short form that can be submitted anonymously. It simply asks where the property is located (an actual street address is required), provides an option to include a photo of the property, and allows for a brief description or comment.
Ending the Zombie Blight
Whether a zombie or vacant house, abandoned properties are a nuisance to the city and a blight on neighborhoods. Houses that are left abandoned often become a target for crimes such as arson and use of illegal drugs. Vacant houses attract pests, junk, and debris, and lower the property values of adjoining homes on that street and the neighborhood.
To report a zombie or vacant house, go to the jamestownny.net website, or call 716-483-7541. On-line reports and calls can be kept anonymous. This information will assist the city in applying for its second Zombie and Vacant Properties Remediation and Prevention Initiative program grant.
Every citizen can take part in cleaning up Jamestown.