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Banks to help stop zombie properties in south Queens and elsewhere

BY ANGELA MATUA

New York is preparing to take on zombies — not the flesh-eating walking dead, but the abandoned properties that have been a scourge in Howard Beach and other south Queens neighborhoods.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that 11 leading banks, mortgage companies and credit unions representing 70 percent of the New York market will actively work to help combat the economic damage and poor safety conditions brought on by zombie properties.

Assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder has been fighting the steady increase in zombie properties in his district, which includes neighborhoods that saw heavy damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Goldfeder sent letters to Wells Fargo, Bank of America and CitiMortgage urging them to take steps to improve properties in their possession.

These institutions, along with Ocwen, Nationstar, PHH, Green Tree Servicing, Astoria Bank, Bethpage Federal Credit Union, M&T Bank and Ridgewood Savings Bank, have agreed to abide by these practices.

“Zombie properties not only have the potential to affect our families’ health and drive down property values, they also slow our long-term recovery from the devastation caused by Sandy,” Goldfeder said. “I applaud banks and lenders for stepping forward as true community partners and agreeing to take the necessary steps to fight the growth of zombie properties and improve quality of life for thousands in southern Queens and Rockaway.”

Existing law dictates that property owners are in charge of maintaining these homes until banks receive a judgement of foreclosure, which can take more than three years after homeowners file for foreclosure.

The participating financial institutions have agreed to regularly inspect properties that fall into delinquency to determine if they are vacant and abandoned, and properly maintain them. Exterior inspections will be conducted within 60 days of delinquency to assess possible vacancy, and then every 30 days after that period.

Institutions will secure the property and maintain safety for communities, including replacing or boarding up windows and changing locks; ensure compliance with applicable New York maintenance codes for minimum sanitary conditions and structural safety; and report abandoned and vacant properties to a state registry to be developed by the New York State Department of Financial Services. Local government officials will also have access to this information.

A report from state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman found that statewide, 16,701 zombie properties existed in New York, an increase of 50 percent from 2013 to 2014.

Residents have called 311 to complain about 16 instances of abandoned properties in Goldfeder’s district from January to April 2015, a representative for his office said.

Rockaway Park resident Tricia Balsamello reached out to Goldfeder’s office to tell the assemblyman about an abandoned house in her neighborhood.

“Since Sandy, I’ve regularly called the banks and the local police precinct to have my neighbor’s abandoned property secured,” Balsamello said. “I’d look out the window at two in the morning and the porch door in the back of the house would be wide open. The backyard also has an unsecured pool. I have two 9-year-olds and I’m afraid to let them outside in case they fall in. I’m hopeful that this new agreement will help improve the problem.”

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