In rural communities, a person may wear many hats and may have the knowledge, which can ultimately help with housing issues, said the lead author of a study examining vacant homes in New York State. 

According to the report, New York State suffered significant numbers of foreclosures during the Great Recession, especially in communities of color, but it is notable that the state saw a large upswing in vacant houses, and houses in the foreclosure process, during the years following the recession.

In 2014, New York State saw nearly 45,000 foreclosure cases filed, down only slightly from a high in 2009, and by the third quarter of 2015, New York State had the second-largest home foreclosure inventory in the nation, with 4.77% of mortgages in foreclosure.

One type of foreclosed home is known as the “Zombie home,” a one- to- four unit house with a mortgage in delinquency or somewhere in the foreclosure process. 

They commonly result from a bank initiating a foreclosure, but not seeing it through to completion. In these circumstances, households often leave upon receiving a notice of intended foreclosure, either because they expect to lose their home or because they mistakenly believe it has already been foreclosed upon. 

“Even though homeowners have left, because the bank does not yet have title to the home, the property remains in a state of deterioration and legal limbo (hence the name zombie),” according to the report. “Zombies come with a variety of challenges, including legal and policy challenges such as the need to track down responsible banks, and they substantially affect communities by destabilizing neighborhoods and shrinking a locality’s tax base.”

The report examined zombie homes in all manner of areas – urban, towns and villages – but Helene Caloir, the lead author of a new report, said in an interview with The Daily Yonder that one thing they learned about more rural communities is that what is left is expertise. 

“One person in government may wear many hats,” she said. “Many of the rural code enforcement and other personnel we worked with really know their communities. So much of their knowledge is because they’re familiar with every road and every problem property. that because of the scale, they’re able to know personally their towns and villages so much better, and able to form those sort of personal relationships that bring contractors and others to the table to really work out strategies together.”

She added that they might not have the same resources that larger cities have, but that they jump in with a “take-care attitude.”

“In a lot of the smaller places, we just saw a lot of really good and effective work that came out of that spirit,” she said. 

One example, she said, is the town of Massena, which has a population of about 13,000 people. The community cross-trained nine firefighters to also be code enforcement officers. 

“They had one code enforcement officer and knew they did not have funds to hire more, but the firefighters did fire compliance inspections and they had downtime at times that could be used for code enforcement work,” she said. “This was a very creative way to obtain more code enforcement capacity without needing to hire additional personnel.”

She noted that at the beginning of the grant, Massina had no information about their vacants – how many they had, where they were and what issues they were creating. 

“They set up a system to inspect the vacants, figure out the maintenance companies and others who were responsible for them and began enforcing the codes against them. By the end of the grant 85% had For Sale signs on them and they were being moved to new ownership,” she said. 

Caloir also noted that in New York, one result of vacant homes might be population loss as opposed to banks sitting on foreclosed homes. 

“That is my sense of it,” she said. “And also the vacancy in rural areas tend to be more spread out. But that’s true of New York and probably more the Northeast.”

To respond to the policy challenge zombie homes present, the New York State Legislature in 2016 passed the Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act, also known as the “Zombie Law.” It became a first-in-the-nation tool for cities, towns and villages to address the backlog of vacant and distressed houses with bank liens. 

According to the report, the law required financial institutions that held delinquent mortgages, or mortgages formally in the foreclosure process, to maintain and secure the houses and comply with exterior housing-code and property maintenance requirements. There was a penalty of $500 per day per house for failing to properly maintain the property.

The report noted that in Elmira, New York, population 26,500, the community’s grant from the program was used to to hire a code enforcement officer designated just for vacants, who was also the person responsible for contacting banks listed to persuade them to comply with the maintenance requirements.

“[B]efore this grant, I really never thought about doing code enforcement like we’re doing it now. . . . We’re getting so much more accomplished. Data-driven code enforcement is phenomenal,” a code enforcement officer was quoted saying in the report. 

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