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'Zombie' properties in WNY are the target of state grants

Just in time for Halloween, the state is sending help to fight “zombies.”

Seventeen Western New York communities on Tuesday will receive grants totaling $2.9 million from a nearly $13 million pool of state funds aimed at tackling “zombie homes,” which are properties stuck in incomplete foreclosures.

After homeowners move out, the homes often fall into disrepair, dragging down neighbors’ property values and attracting crime.

The funds for the state program, called the Zombie Remediation and Prevention Initiative, come from a $3.2 billion settlement agreement between Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Morgan Stanley, a financial services corporation. The Local Initiatives Support Corp. is running the grant program.

“These grants will help rebuild, revitalize, and stabilize communities across the state,” Schneiderman said in a news release.

Schneiderman’s office said the funds will bolster communities’ capacity for housing code enforcement, tracking and monitoring vacant properties, and legal enforcement. The grants will also help communities make sure banks and mortgage companies comply with state and federal law. Communities receiving grants will have to develop programs to help homeowners avoid foreclosure.

The Town of Cheektowaga’s application, for example, calls for outreach to residents who fall behind in their mortgage payments to educate them about their options before they’re foreclosed on, said Supervisor Diane Benczkowski. Too often, she said, homeowners simply walk away.

“I think we have to educate people to not leave their homes right away as soon as they get that first foreclosure notice that they’re behind,” said Benczkowski, who is also a Realtor. “My advice is always, ‘Stay in your house. There’s options.’ We don’t want them abandoning the house.”

The town also will establish a zombies/vacant properties task force made up of local stakeholders; hire part-time clerks and assistant code enforcement officers; and research the 426 identified zombie homes in the town to determine their foreclosure status, according to Benczkowski.

The Town of Tonawanda also wants to establish a task force, as well as use mapping software to create a database of zombie properties. About 280 of the 1,400 vacant properties in the town are suspected of being “zombies.”

Tonawanda’s grant application also calls for expanding a local housing counseling program, increasing enforcement of local and state property codes and partnering with local federal housing and County Land Bank officials to leverage resources to return recently foreclosed properties to the real estate market.

And Niagara Falls will enhance its “Niagara Falls Zombie Fight Project” with better technology and data-based strategies to address vacancy.

“This grant allows us to focus in on this issue with a level of resource that is often not available to local municipalities,” Mayor Paul Dyster said in a statement.

Grants were awarded to the cities of Batavia, $66,500; Buffalo, $350,000; Dunkirk, $125,500; Jamestown, $147,970; Lackawanna, $100,000; Lockport, $150,000; Niagara Falls, $250,000; North Tonawanda, $90,000; Olean, $100,000; Tonawanda, $150,000; the towns of Amherst and Village of Williamsville, $350,000; Cheektowaga, $250,000; Evans, $100,000; Tonawanda, $250,000; West Seneca, $175,000; Town and Village of Hamburg, $175,000; and the Village of Albion, $75,000.

The communities are among 108 across the state identified in July by Schneiderman as eligible for the grants. Seventy-six submitted applications and all were awarded grants. Awards depend on the municipality’s size, scope of its zombie problem, track record and capacity for addressing the problem, according to Schneiderman’s office. The communities picked to apply for the grants are those with populations of least 5,000. They also have at least 100 vacant properties.

The days are over when banks could simply change the locks and kick people out, Benczkowski said.

“Stay in your home, that’s all I can tell people,” she said. “Take care of it. There’s other options.”

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