Erie County Clerk Michael P. “Mickey” Kearns, a long-time advocate in the fight against vacant and abandoned zombie homes, has announced the creation of the Erie County Clerk’s ZOMBIES Initiative. The Initiative kicked off after an agreement was signed between Erie County and the Western New York Law Center.
The Initiative Team will provide technical assistance and outreach services for Erie County municipalities and communities facing zombie foreclosures. Due to the severity of this issue, the New York State Attorney General began allocating funds called Zombies 2.0 to municipalities with high concentrations of zombie foreclosures. Smaller municipalities were not eligible for funding and found roadblocks in fighting the zombie foreclosures in their communities. Clerk Kearns has asked the ZOMBIES Initiative Team to meet with supervisors, mayors, and code enforcement officers in cities, towns and villages throughout Erie County to explore ways they can assist with this growing issue. They have already met with 19 municipalities and are reviewing over 50 properties.
The ZOMBIES Initiative is defined as:
- Zero Tolerance
- Open Lines of Communication
- Municipal participation
- Bank Accountability
- Investment in neighborhoods
- Engage & educate communities
Clerk Kearns has been fighting this issue since he was the South District Representative on the Buffalo Common Council. As a member of the New York State Assembly, he was one of the leaders in the passage of “zombie property” legislation known as the New York State Foreclosure Relief Act, and as Erie County Clerk, this has become a priority for his office.
As Clerk, he has seen how the blight of zombie foreclosures has impacted municipalities throughout Erie County and across New York State for several years. “The main goal and purpose of this collaboration is to provide resources to Erie County municipalities and communities facing zombie foreclosures,” Kearns said.
“A zombie home is a vacant property in which the homeowner moves out of due to mortgage default and threat of foreclosure,” explained Jordan Zeranti, Esq., Managing Attorney, Zombie Foreclosures from the WNY Law Center. “The home becomes a “zombie” because the bank has not completed the foreclosure process. In some cases, the bank decides to abandon the foreclosure years after determining it no longer wants the property. This allows the banks to reap the tax, insurance, and accounting benefits from documenting a loss. In turn, the zombies haunt former homeowners who find themselves legally liable for properties they did not even realize they still owned. All the while, the zombies bring down property values and negatively impact entire communities.”
In mid-July Erie County Legislator John Mills contacted Clerk Kearns with the address of a long-time vacant and abandoned home in the Town of Boston. Zeranti and her team researched the property and began working with the County Clerk, Town of Boston Supervisor Jason Keding, and Legislator John Mills on rectifying the vacant zombie home on West Hill Road in Boston. She found a foreclosure action has been pending on the property since 2014 and during that time the mortgage has been assigned at least eight times to different servicers. According to court filings, the current servicer is Gregory Funding and the loan is owned by a Trust.
Neighbors have been extremely upset and vocal with this eyesore in their well-maintained neighborhood and town officials said they have issued many violation notices to no avail. The grass was more than four feet tall when they visited the site, there were holes along the bottom of the house, and rats were seen on the property.
Dale B. Bacchetti moved to West Hill Road with his family three years ago because of the beautiful views, expansive landscape, and its quietness. He said the property across the street from him was well maintained by the previous owner until he passed away at the beginning of last year. For the past year, there has been no one around and he is afraid to let his grandchildren outside for fear of the mice and rats he has seen. “It used to be a beautiful property, but the condition today is bringing down the value of our home and everyone on the street,” he said. “It is a real shame.”
“This is a perfect example of a loan servicer’s failure to follow New York State Law by not maintaining a property during the foreclosure process,” Zeranti explained. “Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law Section 1308 requires servicers monitor and secure properties where there is a reasonable basis to believe the property is vacant and abandoned. The servicer could face a civil penalty of $500 per day for violating the law,” she added.
Zeranti worked with Boston Supervisor Keding to send a letter to the servicer notifying them of the law and subsequently, the media was notified. A story by Al Vaughters on Ch. 4 and stories in the local weekly papers appeared and suddenly within two weeks, the grass was cut and work is being done on the property.
“These abandoned houses significantly decrease property values and threaten the safety of surrounding properties,” Boston Supervisor Keding said. “Erie County’s Zombie Task Force, of which I am a member, will be an essential resource for municipalities across Erie County to combat this nuisance, and make communities whole. I will continue to partner with the Erie County Clerk and the Western New York Law Center as these properties are identified, to keep our community safe.”
Legislator Mills added, “I appreciate the work being done by the WNY Law Center and Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns as they are aggressively holding lending agencies accountable for zombie properties. These structures are a hazard to residents and neighborhoods across the county. We must continue working together to rid our communities of these properties.”
The members of the Erie County Clerk’s ZOMBIES Initiative Team, from the WNY Law Center (WNYLC), are:
Jordan Zeranti, Esq., Managing Attorney, Zombie Foreclosures. A lifelong Town of Tonawanda resident, she has been working as a staff attorney at WNYLC since 2015. She primarily represented defendants in mortgage and tax foreclosure actions during settlement conferences, litigation, and negotiations. In her role as Managing Attorney, she will supervise WNYLC staff in zombie foreclosure matters and advise municipalities with respect to enforcement actions under RPAPL 1308. She is admitted to practice in New York, U.S. District Court of the Western District of New York, and U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Western District of New York. She currently serves as the Co-Chair of the New Yorkers for Responsible Lending (NYRL) Mortgage Working Group. Jordan graduated cum laude from the University of Buffalo Law School with her Juris Doctor and Masters Degree in Social Work. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, graduating magna cum laude.
Kyle Boxhorn, Zombie Foreclosures Policy Analyst & Special Projects. He joined WNYLC in September 2018 as a Zombie Policy Analyst & Special Projects Assistant. He previously worked at WNYLC as an AmeriCorps Vista for two years while completing his graduate studies in Public Administration and Nonprofit Management. During his two terms of AmeriCorps service, he conducted research and compiled data to track foreclosure trends focusing on the City of Buffalo. Concurrently, he organized the first regional zombie task force in Western New York. Prior to WNYLC, Kyle served as a full-time staff researcher and policy analyst for the NYS Assembly Graduate Internship Program. As a Graduate Scholar, he was responsible for providing fiscal analysis of proposed legislation and program budgets, researching and drafting bills and memos, and preparing background papers and reports. He earned a BA in International Studies from Manhattan College and an MPA in Nonprofit Management from Buffalo State College.
Yanis Saldo, Zombie Foreclosures Paralegal. She has been a paralegal at the WNYLC since 2016, working primarily on consumer debt, mortgage foreclosure, and tax foreclosure matters. In her new position, she will serve as the point person between Clerk Kearns and municipal leaders who have zombie homes in their communities. She will intake all zombie complaints, respond to inquiries, and conduct the needed research. In addition, she will assist Jordan in case specific work on the properties. She earned a degree in Paralegal Studies from Erie Community College and a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from Buffalo State College.
Michael J. Billoni, Communication Liaison. He has spent more than 40 years in the communication business in WNY. He began his career as a sports reporter for the Tonawanda News, Buffalo Courier-Express and Rochester Democrat & Chronicle before joining the Buffalo Bisons in 1983. He became the club’s Vice President and General Manager until he retired in 1996 because of complications from a near fatal bicycle accident. He has been inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame and in 1992 was named by Baseball America as one of the Nine Most Influential Men in Baseball. He began his Billoni Associates communication company in 2000 and along with public relations projects, he has authored one book and published two others. He earned a degree in Journalism from SUNY at Morrisville.
Kate Lockhart is Vacant and Abandoned Property Program Director for the WNYLC.
If there is a vacant and abandoned zombie home in your neighborhood, report the property on the Initiative’s website: www.eriecountyclerkzombies.com. The team will research the property and follow-up with your municipality. They also have a Facebook Page: Erie County Clerk’s Zombies Initiative.
Lead image: Erie County Clerk’s ZOMBIES Initiative team meets with Town of North Collins officials. From left, Jordan L. Zeranti, Esq., Managing Attorney, Zombie Foreclosures; Town Supervisor John Tobia and Town Code Enforcement Officer Phil Tremblay