Weekly Feature

2016-10-19 / Local News

Town of Tonawanda receives $250,000 to combat ‘zombie’ homes

Grant awards totaling $12.6 million were announced by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman last week to help 76 cities, towns and villages across the state address the problem of vacant properties and “zombie” homes.

Among the areas listed, the Town of Tonawanda will receive $250,000, according to a press release from the Attorney General’s Office. The money will address housing vacancy and blight by bolstering municipalities’ capacity for housing code enforcement, for tracking and monitoring vacant properties, and for legal enforcement capacity to ensure that banks and mortgage companies comply with local and state law.

“My office did everything it could to ensure that the Town of Tonawanda would benefit from this funding,” said Assemblyman Robin Schimminger, who represents the Town of Tonawanda, “and I am thrilled that it was awarded this grant. Residents will reap the benefits of a more beautified town with fewer vacant and abandoned properties.”

The grants were awarded under the Zombie Remediation and Prevention Initiative, which the Office of the Attorney General established in July with funds drawn from the $3.2 billion settlement agreement with Morgan Stanley that Schneiderman, as co-chairman of the federal-state working group on residential mortgage-based securities, negotiated in February. That settlement generated $550 million in cash and consumer relief for New Yorkers.

The Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national community development intermediary that specializes in affordable housing, economic development and community revitalization, is overseeing the initiative, selected the grantees and will be providing technical assistance to the funded municipalities as they implement their plans.

All the funded proposals include a prevention component, to connect at-risk homeowners to services so they can avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes.

“Too many homeowners across New York are still struggling to rebuild their communities in the wake of the housing crisis caused by major banks,” Schneiderman said. “I’m proud that the funding obtained by my office’s settlement with Morgan Stanley will now help cities and towns across the state reverse the proliferation of zombie properties, which invite crime and threaten the value of surrounding homes. These grants will help rebuild, revitalize and stabilize communities across the state.”

Additional grant recipients include the City of North Tonawanda, $90,000; City of Tonawanda, $150,000; Town of Amherst/Williamsville Village, $350,000; Town of Cheektowaga, $250,000; and Town of West Seneca, $175,000.

“These homes can remain vacant eyesores in our residential neighborhoods for years and can greatly affect the quality of life of the neighboring property owners,” said Town Supervisor Joseph Emminger. “These additional resources provided by the New York State Attorney General’s Office, coupled with new banking regulations enacted by the State Legislature, will give us the necessary tools to tackle these problem properties.”

According to a press release from Schimminger’s office, next year, the Town of Tonawanda will be:

Forming a Distressed Properties Task Force to assist in the identification and remediation of zombie properties.

Expanding a housing counseling program to include any homeowners in the Town of Tonawanda or Village of Kenmore experiencing foreclosure issues regardless of income.

Retaining a legal services firm to assist the town in returning vacant zombie properties back into productive reuse by informing mortgagees of their new responsibilities under the Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act and finalizing foreclosure sales or mortgage modifications.

The initiative coincides with the June 2016 passage of the Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act, a bill that the attorney general wrote. Among other provisions, that law requires banks to register any properties abandoned by their owners with the Department of Financial Services and to maintain those properties during the foreclosure process, and not just once the process has been completed. Banks face significant fines for noncompliance.

The state will share the registry with localities and will run a toll-free hotline for individuals to report such properties.

Municipalities with populations of at least 5,000 residents and at least 100 vacant and abandoned properties were invited to apply for the funds through a competitive application process.

Funding decisions were based on the number of abandoned properties within the municipality; the proportion of such properties compared to the overall size of the municipality; its level of general economic distress; and its demonstrated interest in addressing the problem of housing vacancy and blight.

In total, 108 municipalities were invited to apply for funding; 76 submitted proposals, and all were awarded grants. While accurate numbers have been hard to come by, it has been estimated, based on data released by Realty Trac in 2015, that there are some 16,000 zombie homes across the state.

The Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act allows the state, for the first time, to accurately track the number of abandoned properties and ensure their upkeep. The Zombie Remediation and Prevention grants allow cities and towns across the state to maximize the impact of the law and to partner with the state in addressing the blight of abandoned properties.

The Zombie Remediation and Prevention Initiative is but one component of Schneiderman’s strategy to help New York families and communities recover from the housing crash. He has led the fight for strong bank settlements that make the banks responsible for mitigating any damage they caused.

He has obtained settlements that have brought more than $95 billion to communities across the country. More than $5.5 billion of that money has flowed into New York.

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