LACKAWANNA, NY – Erie County’s second largest city will begin fining banks and mortgage holders up to $500 per day for failing to take care of so called zombie homes.
In doing so, the Steel City will become the first in municipality in Western New York to exercise its ability to levy fines under a new law called the Foreclosure Relief Act, which went into effect on December 20, 2016.
“Zombie homes” occur when are properties are abandoned by their owners who can’t afford their mortgage, and when banks which hold the papers on them –do nothing to keep them up.
They languish in disrepair, becoming a blight on neighborhoods until the foreclosure process is complete.
“Unfortunately, that can take many years, which is the frustrating part” said Christy Noonan of Hunt Real Estate.
While New York has the longest average foreclosure time of any state in the nation, that’s only part of the problem according to Kate Lockhart of the Western New York Law Center, who says in many instances the problem is compounded by banks who delay any move to foreclose.
“Their intent is not to pursue the property as an asset, but to try and get money out of the homeowner," she said, explaining that banks will sometimes reject offers to buy homes for amounts less than what is owed.
However, she contends that if those offers were accepted, the homes would be restored, thus the zombie homes would figuratively “rise from the dead”.
“The banks will write the mortgages off instead, and continue to pay the taxes, But the neighborhood is held hostage despite offer after offer after offer,” she said.
“When they decline these offers, to me that’s unacceptable,” said NYS Assemblyman Michael Kearns (D-Buffalo), who in the past has taken to attempting to shame banks into dealing with derelict zombie homes.
Kearns thinks the fines are good because they speak to banks in the language they best understand: money.
"I'm actually considering amending the law, so that if we don’t get their cooperation with fines of $500 per day, we’ll raise it to $1,000. We will do whatever we can to hold these banks and service providers accountable," Kearns said.
The daily fines are part of an over- arching state law, which also not only speeds up the foreclosure process, but also puts the onus on mortgage holders to maintain properties even before the foreclosure is complete--once they're aware they've been abandoned.
By some estimates, there are up to 15-thousand zombie homes across New York State.