Vacant properties are a persistent land use issue in the most financially distressed regions, as thousands of properties currently sit empty throughout nation. “Zombie” properties result when a bank begins foreclosure proceedings on a property, and the owner abandons the property before the process can be completed. Existing in limbo until the foreclosure paperwork is finally finished, the properties sit rotting for years, attracting unsavory activities and decreasing neighborhood property values. In Newburgh, N.Y., alone, ten percent of all homes are in some state of abandonment, and many of these properties are zombie properties based on the Center’s study of confirmed vacant properties in Newburgh. Other cities that have experienced an industry exodus, such as Poughkeepsie (for which the Center has conducted a similar study), Niagara Falls, Buffalo, and even Westchester County localities face a similar plight and are eager to begin taking substantive steps to resolve them.
Jessica Bacher, Executive Director of Pace Land Use Law Center, has been a key player in the process of property remediation in localities struggling with vacant properties. She serves as Chair of the ABA State and Local Government Section’s Distressed Properties Sub-Committee of the Land Use Planning & Zoning Committee, and her forthcoming article in the Urban Lawyer, A Local Government’s Strategic Approach to Distressed Property Remediation, co-authored with Meg Byerly Williams, discusses this issue in detail. In Newburgh specifically, Jessica has worked closely with city staff and local non-profits on code enforcement best practices, the development of one of the first land banks in New York State, and creation and amendment of local laws to better address the concerns posed by vacant properties.
Vacant properties also have caught the attention of the New York Attorney General’s Office. The Attorney General strongly advocates legislation that directly addresses the vacancy issues faced by localities, and the legislature will consider this legislation again in January 2015 during the new legislative session. The legislation will require banks to register vacant properties in a central database and pay for their upkeep. Jessica believes this is a crucial step to effectively address the vacancy issue: “a statewide registry would alleviate a significant local burden and shed light on an issue that until now has gone almost unnoticed. The registry would help to clarify the extent of the problem, so appropriate strategies and enforcement techniques can be developed and deployed.” The bill also creates a standardized definition of the term “abandonment,” provides guidelines for determining abandonment, requires banks to provide notice to those residing in foreclosed properties that they have a right to remain in the property until the conclusion of the foreclosure proceedings, and imposes penalties on banks that do not wrap up their foreclosure proceedings in a timely manner (up to $1,000 per day). If passed in the upcoming legislative season, the bill will ease the uphill battle localities face when addressing vacant property issues.