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Passage of ‘zombie homes’ bill in Albany gets support from Niagara County

NIAGARA FALLS – A once-grand but deteriorating home in one of Niagara Falls’ best neighborhoods was the backdrop Thursday as local officials called for the State Legislature to pass a bill that might solve the problem of abandoned homes.

The “zombie homes” bill, first suggested by state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, failed to pass last year and has been consigned to committee this year.

The bill, officially called the Abandoned Neighborhood Relief Act, would require banks foreclosing on houses because of unpaid mortgages to maintain them or pay a penalty of $1,000 a day to the host municipality. Also, the Attorney General’s Office would maintain a database of foreclosed properties, to make information about them easier for buyers to find

The bill hasn’t been popular with Albany Republicans, but at least one local GOP lawmaker has signed on as a co-sponsor.

“This zombie law is a no-brainer,” declared Assemblyman John D. Ceretto of Lewiston, making a pun on the story that zombies eat brains.

Zombie homes can eat away at even the most prosperous neighborhoods, such as College Avenue in the Falls, a tree-lined street of high-priced old homes. Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster said some neighbors have been mowing the lawn at 560 College Ave., a 3,500-square-foot home at the corner of College and Lewiston Road in the DeVeaux section of the Falls. It has been abandoned for about five years.

“It’s a high-profile house on a prominent corner,” said Dyster, who was joined by Lockport Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey and Honeoye Falls Mayor Richard B. Milne, president of the New York Conference of Mayors, in speaking out in favor of Schneiderman’s proposal.

Lee Merletti, who has lived on College Avenue since 1965, said she is concerned about the empty house on the corner.

“I think that people have broken into it and taken out copper pipes. I think there’s a lot of damage inside,” Merletti said. “The people that had the house before, they thought they had it sold. They moved to Florida, but the sale fell through.”

Niagara County land records showed that the owners are G. Curtis Kelley and Sheila Tavano-Kelley of Fort Myers Beach, Fla., Key Bank filed a mortgage foreclosure suit against them in 2010, but the mortgage was acquired that year by BAC Home Loan Servicing, which later merged into Bank of America. The latter bank filed a new foreclosure action in 2014, and two months ago, State Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour signed an order designating Buffalo attorney Robert W. Godwin Jr. as the referee to determine how much is owed to the bank and to set up an auction.

In the meantime, the house, assessed at $225,000, continues to deteriorate. However, Seth A. Piccirillo, Niagara Falls community development director, said the property taxes are current.

If they weren’t, the property might be eligible for Niagara Falls’ new home ownership auction, set for 6 p.m. Thursday in City Hall. Eight homes, seized by the city because of delinquent taxes, will be up for bids, but buyers must agree to fix them up within a year and live in them for five years, or they will be forfeited back to the city.

Figures released by the Attorney General’s Office, based on the RealtyTrac real estate service, showed that there were 23 zombie homes in Niagara County in 2014, down from 59 in 2013, making Niagara one of the few counties where the abandoned house problem is getting better.