City receives state funds to deal with 'zombie' properties

Shweta Karikehalli | The Daily Star A so-called "zombie" property at 18 Hazel Street in Oneonta is shown on Wednesday. 

The city of Oneonta is one of four recipients of a $200,000 grant announced by state Attorney General Letitia James to solve the problem of so-called "zombie properties" — vacant or abandoned homes that are not maintained during a prolonged foreclosure proceeding.

The awardees are collaborating with the Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank to achieve the goals of the grant, dubbed the "Zombies 2.0 program," across Montgomery, Herkimer, Otsego and Schoharie counties, according to a media release by Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank. The Zombies 2.0 program is a result of the office of the attorney general's $500 million settlement with the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2018 over its involvement with the 2008-2009 foreclosure crisis. 

Oneonta as a whole has at least 100 vacant and abandoned properties as determined by the office of the attorney general, which qualifies it for the Zombies 2.0 grant, said Tolga Morawski, executive director of Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank in an email to The Daily Star. The city of Oneonta has approximately 10 properties that can be considered zombie properties, Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig said. 

Zombie properties can adversely affect a neighborhood's safety by having hazards, such as falling roofing or tree limbs. Their dilapidated appearance may also lower property values in a neighborhood. 

"The grant provides funds to municipalities to increase housing code enforcement, track and monitor vacant properties and bolster legal enforcement capacity to ensure banks and mortgage companies comply with local and state law," James said in the release.

The money will go toward the salary of a "Zombie Quarterback," who will be hired to track down the owners of vacant and abandoned properties, Morawski said. In addition, two regional code enforcement officers will be hired to focus on upkeep of vacant and abandoned properties. Doing this will help ensure the building isn't degenerating while waiting to come out of foreclosure, Morawski said.

Money will also go toward lawyers who will help get banks and other absentee property owners into compliance, and for the mapping of blighted property. The mapping, which will be done using geographic information system consulting, will identify trends where disinvestment has disproportionately hurt neighborhoods, so Greater Mohawk Valley Land Bank knows where more help is needed, Morawski said.

Paperwork is being finalized, he said, and the hiring of the Zombie Quarterback and the two regional code enforcement officers is expected to occur in the next two to three months. 

Shweta Karikehalli, staff writer, can be reached at skarikehalli@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7221. Follow her @DS_ShwetaK on Twitter.

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