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Long Beach targets ‘zombie homes’

Mortgage-in-default registry to combat blighted properties

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The City Council voted unanimously on Sept. 4 to establish a new registry to identify, track and clean up abandoned properties in Long Beach, often referred to as “zombie homes.”

The city said that as part of an ongoing effort to combat blight caused by properties that are in foreclosure and ne-glected or only minimally maintained, it was establishing a “mortgage-in-default” registry that will pressure banks and mortgage lenders to maintain those properties by requiring them to register with the city — and face fines if the properties are not cleaned up.

Scott Kemins, commissioner of the city’s Building Department, said that there are 50 to 60 abandoned properties in Long Beach, which he and other city officials said not only create quality-of-life and safety issues for residents, but also hurt property values.

“The problem is, in New York state, it could take up to 10 years for a bank to foreclose on a property, and in that time frame, there is no owner,” Kemins said. “And the bank doesn’t want to take responsibility for the property because they don’t own it yet.”

He added that the city currently issues violations to property owners based on complaints by neighbors, and sometimes places liens on the homes for the cost of the cleanup — typically several hundred dollars. City workers are often forced to maintain unkempt properties, Kemins said, which has put a strain on the Building Department’s finances and resources. The registry, he said, would allow the city to better identify neglected properties, and determine how many homes are actually abandoned and have fallen into disrepair.

Councilman Scott Mandel re-called seeing one home on East Olive Street last year that was overrun by wild animals and had rotting food, foul odors and debris that created health and safety issues.

“Every day we get another complaint,” Kemins told the council. “We go out there and issue a violation, and the owner is nowhere to be found. One of the most frustrating things is trying to get ahold of somebody at a bank to find out who’s responsible. This [registry] will give us that tool to now have a contact person — a bank, a mortgage service company — to hold responsible, and for them to deal with it so we don’t have to deal with it.”

City officials said they intended to partner with ProChamps, a Florida-based company specializing in such programs, which would operate the registry. ProChamps was the only company to respond to a request for proposals over the summer, officials said. The Town of Babylon teamed up with the company in 2017 to create a registry, as did the Village of Babylon earlier this year.

According to the city, the program would apply “to any real property that is under a current notice of default or notice of mortgagee’s sale, pending tax assessor’s lien sale, properties that have been the subject of a foreclosure sale where the title was retained by the beneficiary of a mortgage involved in the foreclosure, and any properties transferred under a deed in lieu of foreclosure or sale.”

Registered properties would be subject to a semiannual, nonrefundable registration fee of $250. The city could collect about $25,000 in fees or more per year, depending on how many properties were identified.

“This registry allows the city to address these ‘zombie homes’ quickly and forces lenders to be responsible and accountable in keeping their properties in acceptable condition, until the property is in the hands of responsible homeowners,” Council Vice President Chumi Diamond said in a news release.

As part of an agreement with ProChamps, which the council is expected to vote on this month, the company would take 20 percent of the fees collected, with the rest going into the city’s general fund.

City officials said that mortgage lenders would be required to inspect and register properties with the Building Department within 10 days of a notice of default. The process, they said, would include specifying whether the property was occupied or vacant, and providing the name and contact information of the lender and mortgage provider, as well as the property manager.

Violations would range from $250 to $5,000, and potential 15 days’ imprisonment for those convicted of repeat offenses, though officials said that jail time would be rare and based on judicial discretion.

“As one of the city’s prosecutors, one of the greatest difficulties we encounter is with these zombie homes,” said Greg Kalnitsky, the city’s assistant corporation counsel. “The original owner is long gone, the bank isn’t technically the owner of the property and doesn’t want anything to do with it.”

Kemins said that the number of vacant properties increased after the 2008 financial crisis, and the problem was exacerbated by Hurricane Sandy. “Sandy has definitely added to it,” he said, “but what’s surprising is, not as many people walked away after Sandy as you’d think, because they had the opportunity to sell their homes to New York Rising for good money, and a lot of people did do that.”

A number of residents, including Nassau County Legislator Denise Ford, questioned the need for the registry, saying that both the state and Nassau County created registries and databases in recent years in the wake of Sandy, and urging the city to partner with those programs. Ford said that the city should work with State Sen. Todd Kaminsky and the county clerk’s office to create a “common database.”

“I’m, not saying don’t do this,” Ford said. “I know in many instances that people will appreciate that houses that have been left vacant for so many years bring down their property values. . . . But I think that what all of us need to do is try to coordinate. Maybe instead of paying a company that’s in Florida, we can keep our work right here in the City of Long Beach.”

“We don’t have any issue sharing any of the data with government entities that would need it, whether it be the state or the county,” Kemins said after the meeting.

“I see this as taking this one step further,” Mandel said. “The state started the process. This empowers the city to continue that process for the safety and health of the community, for our employees who have to go in there, before it gets too bad . . . and it also gets the attention of the banks, who otherwise have no incentive other than waiting until it gets to a foreclosure. This now puts them on our radar and forces them to pay us attention or be financially liable.”