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Utica, Rome other CNY cities tackle zombie-home problem with state grants

By Eric Reinhardt

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Officials from Utica and Rome joined New York Attorney General Letitia James in Utica as she announced $9 million in grant funding for 48 communities to deal with “zombie” homes, or those properties that are vacant or abandoned and aren’t maintained during a prolonged foreclosure proceeding. (PHOTO CREDIT: NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL TWITTER PAGE)

UTICA — More than 45 communities statewide — including Utica, Rome, Syracuse, and Binghamton — will use a total of $9 million in grant funding to try to reduce the number of “zombie” homes. 

Zombie homes are vacant or abandoned homes that aren’t maintained during a prolonged foreclosure proceeding, according to the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James. The attorney general announced the grants during a visit to Utica on July 10.

Besides Utica, Rome, Syracuse, and Binghamton, the cities of Auburn, Elmira, Fulton, Geneva, Ogdensburg, and Oneonta will also receive funding from the program dubbed “Zombies 2.0.”

The funding from “Zombies 2.0” will provide 48 municipalities with the resources needed to address housing vacancy and blight, James contends. The program is a result of the $500 million settlement in 2018 between the attorney general’s office and the Royal Bank of Scotland. The settlement was over the bank’s “deceptive practice and misrepresentations to investors relating to the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) that can lead to financial crisis,” the attorney general said.

“The City of Utica and the attorney general’s office work for the same residents, and we will be vigilant in protecting our residents and their quality of life,” Utica Mayor Robert Palmieri said in a news release issued by the attorney general’s office. “This project and this partnership is an example of that vigilance and it gives us more tools to fight for our residents, our communities, and the beauty of our City and our great state.”

To be eligible, cities, towns, and villages had to have at least 5,000 residents and more than 100 vacant properties individually, or combined in the case of joint applications. Through these funds, these municipalities should be able to improve data collection and analysis to track vacant and abandoned properties.

They’ll also be able to invest in new technology to better collect and analyze data to address the collective impact of vacant properties on neighborhoods. 

The communities will also have the means to create “zombie coordinators” and task forces to coordinate code-enforcement activities and resources. 

In addition, grant recipients can boost capacity of code enforcement and legal departments to enforce relevant laws to hold lienholders accountable or seek remedies to improve housing quality; and connect at-risk homeowners to foreclosure-prevention resources, the release stated.

“Too many communities throughout New York State are blighted by abandoned homes that decrease property values and threaten the safety of our neighborhoods,” James said. “These grants will go a long way in supporting municipalities and ensuring they have the resources they need to combat this nuisance.”

The selected municipalities will use grants ranging between $50,000 and $500,000 each, based on the size of the community, the scale and severity of their zombie problems, and their proposed use of such funds. 

Program purpose

The grant awards continue the 2016 Zombie Remediation and Prevention Initiative. The New York attorney general’s office created the program to address housing challenges, “especially vacancy and blight.” It also tracks and monitors vacant, abandoned properties to help cities and towns to clear out zombie properties, the attorney general said. 

The creation of the Zombie Remediation and Prevention Initiative coincided with the passage of the New York State Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act of 2016, or what is known as the “Zombie Law,” per the release. 

It requires banks and other mortgagees to externally maintain vacant one-to-four family houses during the foreclosure process or face a potential penalty of up to $500 per day per property. Zombie grantees used funds to bolster legal efforts to enforce the Zombie Law by issuing citations to noncompliant mortgagees or in some cases taking mortgagees to court to enforce the law. 

The New York City–based Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) handles the program with funds given by Columbia, Maryland–based nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners, the attorney general’s office said. 

LISC issued applications to municipalities based on the number of abandoned residential properties, the proportion of such properties compared to the overall number of residential properties, and its level of general economic distress. 

“I would like to thank Attorney General Letitia James and the staff of LISC for allowing the City of Rome to continue its work in combating blight and holding absentee banks and landlords liable for abandoned property,” Rome Mayor Jacqueline Izzo said in the release. “The second round of funding will allow us to continue strengthening our codes enforcement, hold absentee landlords and banks accountable for neglected property, assist in controlling blight and ultimately transforming neighborhoods.”               

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