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Riverhead Town gets $100K grant to combat ‘zombie homes’

Photo Oct 14, 12 58 02 PMzombieweb

The New York State Attorney General’s office has awarded a $100,000 grant to Riverhead Town to fight back against “zombie” homes — vacant and abandoned foreclosed houses that aren’t being properly maintained.

Town Supervisor Sean Walter said the funding will help beef up the town’s code enforcement efforts against the zombie homes, pay for tracking and monitoring of vacant properties and pay for legal enforcement of local town codes.

 “The growing problem of abandoned, “zombie” properties has a significant adverse effect on our neighborhoods,” Mr. Walter said in a statement. “While the efforts of the Code Enforcement Division to date are commendable, budgetary constraints have unfortunately imposed some limits on what the town can do. This grant will alleviate some of the financial burden that has resulted from the blight of abandoned properties and protect the quality of life Riverhead residents expect and deserve living on the East End.”

According to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, zombie homes “invite crime, threaten public safety, and drive down the value of surrounding homes.” And Long Island is among the hardest hit areas in the state when it comes to foreclosures,  according to a State Comptroller report.

Estimates released last year by Realty Trac show there are about 16,000 zombie homes across Long Island. Assistant Town Attorney Dawn Thomas, who is handling the town’s crackdown on zombie homes, said there are roughly 55 such properties within the town.

But that number may be underreporting the total number of zombie homes in town, since no accurate tracking currently exists, she said.

“We want to get a better handle of how many zombie homes we have,” said community development director Chris Kempner.

While other vacant properties exist in town, the zombie homes pose a unique challenge because it’s often difficult to determine who should be held accountable for upkeep during the “lag period” between a home going into foreclosure and it being taken over by the bank, Ms. Thomas said.

Ms. Thomas said that while foreclosures are dropping off in other parts of the state, the rate of foreclosures in Suffolk County is actually increasing.

Ms. Kempner said zombie homes have caused problems in the past, including a stabbing reported among squatters at one vacant home and vandalism that flooded a vacant house, causing it to fill up with black mold and decrease nearby property values.

“The ones that are a problem are the blighted, vacant and abandoned ones because they become an eyesore and an opportunity for squatters,” Ms. Thomas added.

Riverhead Town’s grant is part of a $12.6 million program by the state to assist 76 cities, towns and villages across the state. The grant program is being paid for using a $3.2 billion settlement agreement with Morgan Stanley in February related to allegations that the banking firm misled investors into buying residential mortgage-backed securities that later crashed during the housing financial crisis.

Of that settlement, $550 million was handed over to the state, with the rest going to federal authorities, Mr. Schneiderman said in a statement.

“Too many homeowners across New York are still struggling to rebuild their communities in the wake of the housing crisis caused by major banks,” Mr. Schneiderman said.  “These grants will help rebuild, revitalize and stabilize communities across the state.”

Riverhead Town was chosen to receive the grant by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a nonprofit community development organization that is overseeing the initiative.

“We can’t wait to work with mayors and supervisors and their communities… all over New York State,” said Denise Scott, LISC’s Executive Vice President for Programs.

Ms. Kempner said the town’s grant money will go towards an automated tracking system to locate and deal with zombie homes, instead of the current method of manually updating spreadsheets with new information.

“The goal is to keep neighborhoods stable,” she said.

Homeowners who are at risk of losing their properties to foreclosure can visit www.AGScamHelp.com or call 1-855-HOME-456 to get connected to “free, high-quality help from a trusted counseling agency partner,” according to the Attorney Generals office.

Those who can’t afford to make their monthly mortgage payments, may also qualify for a loan modification or loan refinance under the government programs. To find out more, visit www.MakingHomeAffordable.gov.

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