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'Zombie' brought back to life in Kenmore

The house at 22 Allegany Avenue in Kenmore sat vacant for nearly eight years after a fire in 2009.

The so-called "zombie home" -- a property stuck in incomplete foreclosure -- on an otherwise stable block became a safety and security concern for Tony Luckoski, who purchased the home next door in the fall of 2014.

"It was disconcerting because you don't know if anybody's hanging out in there," said Luckoski, 32. "A handful of times you'd see kids walking up and down the driveway."

But the home in recent months was gutted, down to the studs, and rehabbed by Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corporation, the local land bank, which obtained the home in a donation from JPMorgan Chase.

The 4-bedroom, 2-bath home totaling 1,380 square feet is set to be listed on the real estate market Wednesday for nearly $125,000.

The land bank is "an excellent tool" to deal with the zombie foreclosure crisis but not a cure-all, said Kate Lockhart, a staff paralegal at the Western New York Law Center, which assists homeowners faced with foreclosure.

"Not all of the properties are in a position to be donated to the land bank, or anyone for that matter, because they linger in the foreclosure process and the bank doesn't have the title," she said. "The fight to eliminate zombie foreclosures is going to be an uphill battle."

There's no exact count of the number of zombie homes in Erie County, although the state's Department of Financial Services is gathering that information from banks, Lockhart said.

The most recent count came from Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns, who gathered a list of about 2,000 zombie foreclosures in Erie County.

"We know that list was not comprehensive," Lockhart said.

The land bank has 35 properties in its inventory, but Executive Director Jocelyn Gordon is hoping a new process will allow the land bank to do more.

The land bank is beginning to sell some of its properties "as is" with a scope of work that needs to be completed within a year for a lien to be removed and the buyer to take full ownership.

For example, the home at 121 Irwinwood Road in the Village of Lancaster would sell for $80,000, but needs about $25,000 worth of work, she said. The log cabin at 76 Chestnut Lane in the Town of Evans would sell for $20,000, and needs about $25,000 worth of improvements.

This model guarantees the buyer will do the necessary improvements to make the home safe and code-compliant, Gordon said.

"Instead of us having to be responsible for all the hiring and getting all the work done, now we're saying, 'Take it, here's the work scope. We're going to come back to check and make sure you did it,'" Gordon said.

It's the model used by the Greater Syracuse Land Bank. "We stole it from Syracuse," Gordon said.

The land bank took title to 50 properties at the last in-rem foreclosure auctions from a list of 100 submitted by municipalities, she said.

"Maybe next year we'll be able to do 100 with this new process," she said.

Collaboration among municipalities, not-for-profits and the public, combined with the newly enacted Foreclosure Relief Act of 2016, "has proven to be the forward momentum we need for this fight," said Lockhart.

Luckoski is just glad to soon have someone living next door to him in Kenmore.

"I'm excited for a neighbor, just so I don't have an empty house next to me," he said. "That's the biggest thing. Hoping for a good old America-loving family to move in."

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