Capital region takes on zombie properties: New York NOW

Jul 28, 2014

Zombie Properties Story begins at 10:40

Dealing with abandoned or zombie properties is a challenge for any municipality. The owner falls into foreclosure, leaving the city to manage the structure and its impact on the community.

Four cities in the Capital Region are hoping the Center for Technology in Government can help them fight urban decay.

Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy laments that his city has roughly 1,000 properties that he would classify as distressed, and they drag down the entire community.

“Where you’ve had distressed property it creates an environment where people go in and do nefarious things. You’ve got drug dealing, you’ve got other criminal activity in urban areas where the price of copper and metals have gone up all the buildings are broken into on an ongoing basis and the buildings are stripped of any of the metal and they sell it for pennies on the pound but again it reduces the value of that property and makes it less likely that we’re going to be able to go in and convert it back into a productive piece of property that might be a home or a business within the community.”

Mayor McCarthy estimates that Schenectady spends about 60-thousand dollars per 'zombie' or abandoned property due to essential services from police, fire, code enforcement and maintenance. That doesn’t even include lost revenue from uncollected taxes.

That’s why his city along with Gloversville, Amsterdam and Troy are working with the University at Albany’s Center for Technology in Government to come up with a means to share information on how each city tracks and deals with the problem of derelict properties. CTG Program Director Meghan Cook explains.

“We help the cities articulate what the problems were, some of the information they wanted to share and we helped them develop a proposal a CFA to the department of state for building an information sharing system that helps share this type of information across cities and within that is also developing the capability within each of the cities.”

Once the cities come together on exactly what code enforcement information they want to share, the center will advise them on their options to set up a secure data sharing system that officials can access. Cook says the Consolidating Funding Application for grant money will need to be approved by the state.

“The project is really to build this capability in these 4 cities and also build this sharing platform so that it’s scalable to the rest of New York State. What’s going on in the Capital Region is going on across the state.”

Across the Hudson River, another Capital Region city participating in the program is Troy. The city is dealing with its abandoned properties through a Vacant Building Registry. City Buildings Plan Examiner Carl Sorriento explains how it works.

“When we find out that a building is first vacant, we have a registry and we have someone who goes and inspects it and makes sure that its structurally safe that it’s boarded up, that its secure and then they come back to the office and they let one of the employees in the office know that it’s vacant and that’s when it generates a letter.”

The letter he’s referring to is the first step in determining who owns the property, an issue any city with zombie properties struggles with. It’s sent to the last known address of the property owner, usually the residence they’ve abandoned.

Sorriento estimates it can take officials in Troy anywhere from 6 to 8 months to locate and contact a vacant building owner. Once the deed holder is contacted and their property added to the Vacant Building Registry that owner is charged $250, a price that doubles every year their property sits vacant in Troy and on the registry list.

“Part of the registry is to get the actual information on who owns the property, their insurance company, what do they plan on doing in the future so that it kind of holds some of these homeowners responsible.”

Once a property is foreclosed on, that doesn’t mean the owner has to leave the premises. Believe it or not, City officials would rather work with the owner to save the property from falling into extreme disrepair and inevitably costing the city tens of thousands of dollars.

Back in Schenectady, Fire Chief Raymond Senecal shows how one zombie property on Eastern Avenue becomes a money pit for the city.

“When you see the front of the building, you see where it’s boarded up, that is almost a sign for homeless people, especially as winter settles in and the weather gets cold and you’re looking for a place to get out of the elements, they go around back where they are not easily seen and they make their way into the building, the only way they have to keep warm is by starting a fire.”

He says his fire fighters often don’t know the stability of a vacant building, making fighting fires even more dangerous.

All New York State municipalities are required to enforce the same building codes but some executive officers like Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy say the reports filed are superficial. He hopes a functional database will allow for better planning.

“I see this problem as no different than what DWI was in the 70’s when they started to collect that data, because a big problem, people moved ahead and the same thing with domestic violence in the 80’s. Once you had the data you could see how significant the problem was and then people focused resources on it.”

While the mayor says this data sharing test program is a start, he would like better regulation from the state to standardize code enforcement… so that Schenectady and other cities across the state can resurrect their struggling neighborhoods.