As a giant yellow excavator from Hannah Demolition tore into the derelict and sagging house on Broadway Tuesday morning, Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns and leaders from the Village of Sloan looked on with both sadness and relief: their effort to tackle the scourge of zombie homes had scored a pyrrhic victory.
While a home that had once been occupied could no longer be saved, it would at least also no longer threaten the safety of neighbors or the value of their neighborhood.
"We have a dilapidated property, and that’s giving it a compliment, it’s in such disrepair," Kearns said, just before the Hannah Demolition crew began its work. "It's a very dangerous situation, on a main thoroughfare, where people walk by it on a daily basis, people like our post office workers and even children in the neighborhood."
Kearns, together with the Western New York Law Center and other partners, has been leading a county-wide charge to prevent homes from being neglected and falling into disrepair without anyone taking responsibility for them – a situation known as a "zombie" home.
That's when a homeowner facing foreclosure has left but the lender doesn't take control, leaving the home in limbo. And it's what had happened at 2331 Broadway, at the corner of Crocker Street, across from the Sloan Medical Center and a massive hub of railroad tracks.
The 2,574-square-foot house had been abandoned by its former owner three years ago, in the face of a defaulted mortgage and likely foreclosure. But the Oklahoma lender hadn't taken possession, so the home just sat and rotted away, its roof eventually caving in and causing its supports to weaken and its outer walls to buckle.
The lender, MidFirst Bank of Oklahoma City, wasn't subject to the state's zombie property law because it did so little business in New York. But after the home was broken into, and the structural concerns became apparent, the bank cooperated with local officials to secure the home, fast-track a foreclosure with special permission during the pandemic, and get the house taken down safely before it could collapse on its own.
"We’ve been pushing for this," said Sloan Mayor Tom Ferrucci. "We just can’t wait for this thing to come down."
Now, officials said, the owner of a neighboring gas station and convenience store is hoping to acquire the property and two adjacent lots, either for additional parking or potentially for a used-car lot.
But they are betting that's an improvement over the rotted structure that stood until Tuesday, or the risk that MidFirst could have just sold the house to an out-of-town investor who "may have held onto it and waited until it collapsed itself," said Kate Lockhart, director of the vacant and abandoned property program at the law center.
"This is not typically a solution that we look for. We’re always trying to get to properties prior to a demolition needing to happen. But unfortunately, this property was too far gone by the time it was reported to us," said Kate Lockhart, director of the vacant and abandoned property program at the law center. "This is just an excellent example of what can happen through collaboration, so we’re really excited to see this building come down today."
Officials said the cooperation by MidFirst shows that the effort by Kearns and the law center to draw attention to such properties - known as their Zombies Initiative - continues to gain steam and is reaching a new level of cooperation. "We have gone from shaming banks to bringing banks to the table and working together as a team," Kearns said. "People are working together to clean up blight in their neighborhood."
As a result of their outreach to communities and code enforcement officers, the zombie group now has a database of more than 4,000 properties in the county that may be vacant, abandoned or at risk of foreclosure. Officials now plan to try to contact all the owners and assess the status of each home.
"Every journey begins with a step, and this is the first step in our fight to rid blight in our neighborhoods," Kearns said. "We want people to stay in their homes, but if a property is vacant, if it is a dangerous situation, then we have to act on it, and the banks need to be accountable to us."
And Kearns urged courts to be proactive and efficient, even using an existing expedited procedure to ensure that vacant properties can get through foreclosure quickly, especially with the moratoria on foreclosures now ending. "We are expecting an onslaught of foreclosures in the community," Kearns said. "This is a problem that we’ve warned people about."
Meanwhile, Erie County residents who are struggling with their mortgage or taxes can get free and confidential assistance this week during a pair of "drive-up" informational events offered as part of the related "Stay in Your Home" campaign. Kearns noted that homeowners have the right to stay in their homes until a foreclosure is completed.
The campaign will hold the events outside the Erie County Auto Bureaus in the Town of Tonawanda and Cheektowaga. The Tonawanda program will be held at 2309 Eggert Road, from 4 to 6 p.m. Aug. 26, while the drive-up in Cheektowaga will be at 2122 George Urban Blvd. from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 28.
Representatives from the Law Center and Belmont Housing Resources for WNY, as well as other attorneys and housing counselors, will be available to speak to residents about their options if they face foreclosure or are just behind on their tax or mortgage payments.
Kearns said he wants to make sure homeowners are aware of the services that are available. He noted that, with many mortgage forbearances and foreclosure moratoriums expiring, borrowers will have to pay back any mortgage or tax payments they missed.
“It was identified by our team that during times of hardship, scam artists are contacting homeowners by phone, internet and by mail looking for money or to allegedly offer assistance,” Kearns said. “Unfortunately, many homeowners fall prey and either move out of their home or do not make the best choice for them and their family and we feel these educational events may help to prevent that.”
The Stay in Your Home Campaign is sponsored by Kearns, the Law Center, State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, M&T Bank Corp., Hunt Real Estate Corp., the cities of North Tonawanda and Tonawanda and the Town of West Seneca. It was created in anticipation of a foreclosure crisis stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting hardships.
The campaign also works with Belmont, the Buffalo Urban League, Legal Aid Bureau, the Erie County Legislature's Vacant and Abandoned Property Community Resource Team, and lenders Ocwen Financial and Wells Fargo & Co.
For information, go to stayinyourhomewny.com or call 716-828-8429.