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Yes, there are still Zombies in Wayne County

by WayneTimes.com
February 20, 2022

For eight years Anne Wickett has been fighting a Zombie in the Town of Ontario. She has enlisted help from the town and anyone who will listen. Some of her progress is thwarted knowing the Zombie still persists, regardless of her efforts.

The “Zombie” that Anne is battling is an abandoned house at 7776 Roder Parkway, becoming a  Zombie Property.

Ontario Town Supervisor Frank Robusto stated: These properties are homes that the homeowner has abandoned, typically in the face of foreclosure action. So called zombie properties, these are homes deteriorating from neglect as they linger in foreclosure limbo, often for years. They are often unkempt and an eyesore. There is no accurate number of zombie homes in our community.” He explained that banks don’t give municipalities where and how many such homes exist.

“So why doesn’t the Town do something about the property?”  is a question I hear often,” added Frank.  “Understand that these homes are still in the current owners’ names. As an owner you have certain property rights protected by law. One of those rights is the “right to do nothing.” You own your property in “fee simple” or “fee absolute” -- that is absolute ownership of your property to do with as you please. Yet there is a big asterisk with this--* “Subject to Governmental Regulations” and this is where zoning comes in.” 

This is the case at the Roder Parkway property. The original owner gave up on the house and the mortgage holder took possession. That was eight years ago and the structure wasn’t getting better with time.

Town of Ontario Code Enforcement finally convinced the latest mortgage holder to put a new roof on the house and make other facial improvements, otherwise winterizing and secure the structure, staving off any further deteriorations. Boarded up, the house is still an eyesore and blight upon the neighborhood.

Currently, the taxes on the property are being paid by the mortgage holder and it is, on the surface, being kept up.

Another problem leading to zombie properties is the fact that, for most of this pandemic, foreclosures have been put on pause and still are.

Robusto said the Roder property is now in the hands of Fanny Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association), a U.S. government-sponsored enterprise. 

Wickett wants the structure to be torn down. “The town does not have the authority to take it down,” said Ontario Supervisor Frank Robusto. He added that the recent COVID pandemic only stalled progress even more.

The Town of Ontario, like many other local municipalities can only get involved if the condition of the property becomes a health or safety hazard. The current owners still own the property to do with what they want, regardless if they are living there or not. Regardless of the condition.

Recently a State Law was enacted giving local governments more legal authority in forcing lenders to either complete the foreclosure process in a more timely manner or charge them for repairs. The negative impact these properties create can last for years while the neighborhood waits for the property to be foreclosed and sold to a new owner.

The law recently passed requires lenders to inspect, register and maintain zombie properties until the foreclosure process is complete.  They are required to do only minimal maintenance of the property.  Minimal maintenance is not at the same standard as the neighborhood may wish.  

Once a property has been deemed to be vacant and abandoned, the lender must take reasonable steps to ensure that the property is secured and maintained in order to minimize public safety risks. Required maintenance includes cutting the grass (not as often as you might like), securing the property against squatters and removing garbage. For example, even though it is not as aesthetically pleasing, a lender may decide that boarding up the windows of a vacant and abandoned property or putting a bright blue tarp over a roof, is an appropriate action in securing a property.

If the minimal maintenance isn’t being done, the Town may now be able to step in.  This year NYS Courts have ruled that if the Town must perform work as mowing or securing the property, the Town can re-levy these charges to the property and include them in the tax bill. This can only be done following appropriate notification procedures. Some lenders are exempt from these new rules under certain guidelines.

These new regulations give the Town the ability to recover cost if the Town must step in and do the work. Yet if the lender is meeting the minimum requirements set forth by law there is nothing the Town can legally do. When the lender is known, the Town does reach out to motivate the lender to secure and maintain the property.

Unfortunately, the foreclosure process can take years to complete. There are many players and investors in lending; private mortgage insurance, different investors of mortgage-backed securities, and loans being sold on the secondary market while one lender may retain the servicing. At last, it goes to a foreclosure department that could be located in another state and is dealing with thousands of properties.  It can get very convoluted and disorganized with no efficient process in place.

Normally, there is a posting on the door of the property indicating the maintenance company responsible with contact information. There is not a lot the Town can do about these properties because of the protection the owners have under real property rights.  Unfortunately, this means the property may sit empty and neglected until it is sold and renovated.

As New York state’s moratorium on COVID-related evictions and foreclosures expired on January 15, Columbia Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic launched a new website for New Yorkers with resources to help homeowners and municipalities navigate the ongoing zombie foreclosure crisis.

The crisis is most acute in New York, which has more zombie properties than any other state and more than double those in Ohio, the state with the second-highest number of zombies in the nation.

The statewide website is dedicated to educating municipalities, code enforcement departments, and other stakeholders on best practices in this area of law. It acts as a centralized location for information, trainings, draft documents, and other tools compiled by the participating organizations as well as communities across the state. 

“The foreclosure crisis is upon us. The combined impact of the pandemic and the end of the foreclosure and eviction moratoria will be devastating to homeowners, tenants, landlords, and communities,” said Conrad Johnson, clinical professor of law and director of the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic at Columbia Law School. 

As for the Roder Parkway property, Robusto stated it often takes years and piles of paperwork before it can find its way back to a useful home.

The Ontario Town Supervisor wants town residents to inform him of any other zombie properties. If you ever have any questions or concerns, please feel free to email me at supervisor@ontariotown.org.

For questions concerning zombie properties in any other towns, contact you town supervisor, or code enforcement officer.

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