How NYC is tackling the problem of ‘zombie homes’

November 25, 2019

By Valeria Ricciulli (Read the story in Curbed)

Back in 2007, the foreclosure crisis first hit New York City neighborhoods: That year, there were around 18,000 foreclosure filings, accounting for more than half of the state’s total filings. Though that was over a decade ago, the city hasn’t fully recovered from the crisis: In 2016, there was a significant spike in home foreclosures, particularly in Brooklyn and Queens.

As a result of the crisis, as Fox 5 New York reported, there are at least 2,000 abandoned and deteriorated homes in the foreclosure process across New York City—particularly in neighborhoods in Central Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, northern Staten Island, and parts of the Bronx—according to the city’s Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD). These properties, which HPD calls “zombie homes,” often fall into disrepair when owners fall behind on mortgage payments. Aside from being neighborhood “eyesores,” these properties often attract squatters, and can become overrun with rodents and trash. (Last week, three men died in a fire in an abandoned property in Queens.)

To prevent these homes’s foreclosures and crack down on “zombie properties” the state legislature passed a package of laws in 2016 requiring lenders to inspect, maintain, and report zombie homes to the state. In order to help the state, in the fall of 2017, HPD launched a “Zombie Homes Initiative” to track and identify these properties, conduct exterior surveys, provide resources to homeowners at risk of foreclosure, and create new approaches to “return zombie homes to productive use.”

One of those possible productive uses is affordable housing—which New York City is in dire need of as it faces a homelessness and affordability crisis.

“There should be no vacant and abandoned homes in a city undergoing a housing affordability crisis,” a spokesperson from the Center for New York City Neighborhoods, which is advising HPD on transforming these properties. “We would like to see these properties repaired and returned to the market as affordable homeownership opportunities for New York families.”

Following the 2016 state “Zombie Law,” cities across New York state have already begun using grants from organizations like LISC to repurpose these properties and provide homeownership opportunities to moderate-income and first-time homebuyers. New York City may take a similar approach.

“When so many families are struggling to find an affordable place to live, we can’t afford to allow these vacant, blighted homes that pose threats to our communities,” Matthew Creegan, a spokesperson for HPD, said in a statement. “The City’s Zombie Homes unit has been working to identify where these properties are, and take necessary action to get them back on track.”

“We’ve referred dozens of properties for legal action and sought hundreds of thousands of dollars from mortgage holders who have failed to maintain their properties, and our next step is to find pathways for these homes to once again become housing options for New Yorkers,” Creegan said.