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Published in Long Island Business News. Accessed: http://libn.com/2017/11/13/zombie-homes/
By: Claude Solnik November 13, 2017
Zombie homes, vacant and abandoned houses often stuck in the foreclosure process long after owners leave, have become blight on the region. Now the fight is taking a new form amid a push to make them less unsightly by banning the use of plywood to board up these houses and calling for other, although more costly, options.
“When you have unsightly strips of plywood, it becomes an issue for all of the neighbors,” said Assemblyman James Skoufis (D-Orange County), who introduced legislation to would ban plywood on abandoned properties. “It becomes a safety issue. It’s a big neon sign saying no-one lives here. It’s also a property value issue.”
While a vacant property is likely to become problematic, Skoufis believes that plywood amounts to a billboard indicating nobody is home. That can lead to theft, fire or squatting.
“A number of studies indicate that the immediate area round zombie properties, particularly with plywood, has an adverse effect on the neighboring property’s value,” he said. “This is a public issue. We’re trying to legislate a solution.”
There are around 6,000 such abandoned properties statewide, according to a written statement last year by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Long Island has more than its share. There were 2,084 zombie homes in Suffolk and 1,960 in Nassau as of Jan. 31, seventh and ninth among 2,165 counties in the nation, according to Newsday. There are 148 zombie houses in Hauppauge, 130 in Ronkonkoma, 99 in Roosevelt, 23 in Wheatley Heights and 22 in Islandia, according to Sharestates.com. Local municipalities last year spent $3.2 million to clean, maintain, board up and demolish homes in disrepair, such as zombie properties, Newsday reported. Zombie houses cost Long Island at least $295 million in depreciated home values, according to Newsday.
“If you put plywood on a property, you’re having a negative impact on the community,” said Robert Klein, founder and chairman of Cleveland-based Community Blight Solutions, which consults regarding abandoned properties. “Plywood screams out loud, ‘I’m vacant.’ Plywood is not a product that secures a property.”
Klein said plywood is being used because it’s a cheap, easy, if unsightly way to board up windows.
“For years, that was the only method of securing a property,” Klein said. “If a property burns down or is vandalized, you have to secure it somehow. Now there are other methods available.”
Various other options exist such as polycarbonate, a sturdy material used for airplane windows, also known as clearboarding.
“It’s virtually unbreakable,” Skoufis said. “A number of companies are beginning to offer polycarbonate as an alternative.”
Community Blight Solutions’ sister company, Secure View, markets polycarbonate as an alternative to plywood. That firm installed more than 140,000 units nationwide at locations such as Chicago, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York City. He said it typically costs twice the $60 that plywood costs per window including labor.
“Plywood historically has to be replaced three times on a property,” Klein added. “The weather has no impact on this and it stays there and it’s reusable.”
Other options include steel panels made by Chicago-based D.A.W.G.S. (Door And Window Guard Systems) to cover doors and windows on vacant buildings.
“Our guards provide security to property owners and neighborhoods from the many problems associated with vacant property,” according to the company. Klein said the main thing is to go beyond plywood, replacing wood with more aesthetic, durable alternatives.
“Whatever you use to secure the property, do not use the plywood,” Klein said. “It accomplishes the opposite of what you want for a community and a property.”
While the idea of banning plywood for abandoned properties may seem impractical, the campaign has scored major victories. Fannie Mae earlier this year indicated it will no longer use plywood on its foreclosed homes.
“They will no longer allow mortgage services servicing vacant homes on behalf of Fannie Mae to use plywood to secure properties,” Klein said. Freddie Mac in a servicing update bulletin released in April told servicers it will reimburse for clearboarding on vacant and abandoned properties in pre-foreclosure.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich earlier this year signed a law banning plywood boarding on vacant and abandoned properties.
“We had a foreclosure crisis. Now we’re going through a blight crisis,” Klein continued. “Properties sit there, boarded with plywood. When you put up clear polycarbonate, it’s much more secure. It does not look like a vacant property. It looks like an occupied property.”
New York State already has taken measures to clean up what’s turning into a state-wide glut of abandoned, sometimes badly maintained properties. New York created a registry for these properties. The Department of Financial Services can levy $500 daily fines for abandoned property violations such as lack of maintenance.
“The state reporting is supposed to put these properties on the Department of Financial Services’ radar,” Skoufis said. “If they receive communication from the local municipality that a property’s not maintained properly, the state is supposed to enforce that.” DFS Superintendent Maria Vullo said in a written statement her agency “will take every action under the law to ensure full compliance and that violations are appropriately penalized.”
Banks that halt foreclosures can create a perpetual problem, but properties also can remain lost in the limbo of foreclosures that lasts several years or longer.
“Zombies don’t get born zombies,” Klein said. “Something goes wrong in the process that turns them into zombies.”
Ohio and Maryland both passed legislation accelerating the foreclosure process to as little as six months for abandoned properties that meet certain criteria. Skoufis supports fast tracking foreclosure process for abandoned homes, rather than leaving them in the courts for many years.
“Nobody’s living there,” Skoufis continued. “When the home is truly abandoned, I believe it should be fast tracked.”
Ohio passed fast track legislation and Maryland and Pennsylvania are considering their own versions. Fast track legislation has been introduced in New York State, but never put to a vote.
“You’re not protecting the consumer,” Klein said. “The consumer is gone. You’re hurting the consumer next door.”