Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns has come up with a new initiative to combat two of the biggest problems that contribute to "zombie homes" — homes that have been abandoned by owners during the lengthy foreclosure process but have not been been taken over by banks.
For too long, communities have not found out about the properties in foreclosure early enough to prevent their abandonment, and homeowners haven't understood their rights and the free resources available to them when they fall behind on their mortgage payments, he said.
Kearns' program will enable cities, towns and villages to have direct access to Erie County Clerk's Office databases showing all new foreclosure actions in their communities since the start of January.
The information will not only include property addresses, but the name of the bank foreclosing on the property, and the name of the lawyer handling the legal process. That information will allow communities to take action early to keep properties from turning into "zombies," he said.
"This is not being done anywhere else in New York State," he said.
In addition, homeowners facing foreclosure will receive a letter signed by Kearns and the head of the Western New York Law Center outlining their rights in the foreclosure process and all available resources they can turn to for help.
"There are options for people, but if people don't know what their options are, they aren't going to make good decisions," he said. "Many times, they're going to leave the property, and that's how zombie properties get created."
Kearns will unveil the new program on Friday, just weeks into his new job as county clerk. He's calling the program ALERT — short for Accessing Lis Pendens Data for Erie County and Reporting to Towns, Cities and Villages.
The new program builds on the work Kearns did as a state assemblyman fighting zombie homes.
Given his office's access to vast amounts of data, being able to leverage foreclosure information to help communities is important, Kearns said.
Originally, he said, the provider who maintains the software used by his office told him there was no way to make this data available to municipal leaders. But working with the county's Division of Information and Support Services, they were able to make it happen.
The Law Center will hold quarterly training sessions for community administrators who want to access the data, starting Jan. 29, said Kate Lockhart, the center's foreclosure data manager. In addition, the agency will launch a new hotline to assist residents facing foreclosure action.
The County Clerk's Office will make information available to communities and to residents. The Law Center will help administrators interpret the data, and give homeowners the guidance they need to make better decisions, Lockhart said.
The Law Center provides free legal services for those facing foreclosure thanks to funding from the State Attorney General's Office. Lockhart pointed out that the foreclosure crisis that began a decade ago remains above normal compared with pre-recession times.
"This still isn't normal, what we're experiencing," she said. "We're just used to it."