Editorial: Thwarting the Zombies

Editorial: Thwarting the Zombies

PHOTO:  Photo Courtesy of Mark Lobo Photography, Flickr.com


For the last few years, there’ve been far too many zombies lurking around. Zombie properties, we mean. Since even before Sandy, after the financial crisis of 2008, if homeowners didn’t have the money to pay mortgages (and, more recently, for repairs required after the storm), many properties have fallen by the wayside.

Most of the houses on the market in Howard Beach (and there are many) have been tidied up or completely overhauled since the Superstorm ravaged us in October of 2012, but still, there are those that haven’t. They sit, ghostlike, with gaping uncurtained windows, some of which are broken, in seeming wait for their next owners – or anyone – to give them a little TLC. The peeling paint, fallen shingles, gutted or crumbling interiors, and dead shrubbery are all sad reminders of the lives they once contained and fostered.

Recent weather fluctuations, ranging from hot to muggy, wet, and hotter, mean that houses – in particular, abandoned ones — can become havens for more and more critters of all shapes and sizes. Water leaks cause mold and mildew. Gas leaks can be lethal on their own and/or lead to fires. Standing water poses a risk for drowning. Appliances can fall over; children can get trapped in and under them. Decrepit railings, floorboards, and ceilings can crumble. Sharp, rusty objects can stab or be stepped on. Simply put, unguarded properties provide a veritable bonanza of scares of which to be wary. It’s no wonder we call them zombies.

In addition to the health and safety risks involved in the presence of these foreclosures, there is also the obvious aesthetic factor to consider. One abandoned home means that values go down for the entire block.

There are conflicting reports on just how many zombie properties there actually are in south Queens, mainly because there doesn’t yet exist an official registry of homes classified as abandoned. Generally, the term “zombie” is associated with homes for which the foreclosure is in limbo. Assuming a bank or mortgage company will eventually take possession of their homes, the owners move away. Yet they still own the titles. Unfortunately, New York is one of the states in which the foreclosure process is the lengthiest. After the homeowner files, it can take up to three years before banks receive judgment – and meanwhile, the owner heads for the hills.

Elected officials respond to constituent complaints and have lists of properties associated with those complaints – or they cull information from 311 calls handled by the Buildings Department specific to “vacant, open, or unguarded properties.” This information is unreliable, as it is only accumulated on a monthly basis. In other words, if someone complained about an abandoned house in 2013 and nothing was ever done to remediate the situation, the caller might not complain again. A common sight results in complacent behavior: we accept what we feel we cannot change.

But now, hope is on the horizon. Governor Cuomo recently announced that a state registry of zombie properties is being developed by the Department of Financial Services and will be shared with government officials. Thirteen participating banks and mortgage companies will conduct regular inspections of abandoned homes, starting with 60 days after the first delinquency and then every 30 days thereafter. By next month, the Finance Department’s best practices guidelines for “inspecting, securing, and maintaining” the foreclosed properties will be fully operational. The document includes specific instructions on what the banks will be entitled to do to a property – making it safer, and making our communities better — once it has been deemed abandoned. Sounds like good zombie-fighting weaponry to us.


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