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Improving Neighborhoods by Eliminating Zombie Homes

On September 19th, the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and the New York City Law Department announced that the City filed lawsuits against the mortgage holders of five zombie properties throughout Brooklyn. Zombie homes are vacant, distressed, one-to-four family properties with delinquent mortgages. These deteriorated small homes are symbols of the lasting impacts of the foreclosure crisis, but are difficult to identify and locate for city officials. The cases were possible due to data collected by HPD’s Zombie Homes Initiative.

The Zombie Homes Initiative is based in HPD’s Office of Neighborhood Strategies, which is overseen by Deputy Commissioner Leila Bozorg (MCP ’10).

“This first round of legal action is a critical step toward getting these properties that contribute to the city’s affordable housing shortage on track for a new life,” said HPD Deputy Commissioner Leila Bozorg (MCP ’10). “We’re using a multifaceted approach to address these properties that are being neglected by the parties who are responsible for them, but we’re also working to prevent future zombie homes by reaching out to homeowners that may be on the brink of foreclosure themselves, many of them still feeling the effects of the financial crisis a decade later.”

Zombie properties exacerbate the impacts of housing shortages and are a burden upon their neighbors by lowering surrounding property values. In 2017, HPD launched the Zombie Homes Initiative, tasked with creating a database to identify properties in the greater NYC region and crafting interventions to return the homes to productive use. Since its inception, the initiative has identified up to 4,000 zombie homes throughout the city, conducted more than 500 surveys of likely zombie homes, sent 26,000 mailings and made 15,000 robocalls to homeowners on the brink of foreclosure, and initiated City interventions on over 125 properties.

“These lawsuits were a very important milestone for the Initiative. They sent a message to mortgage holders that the City is serious about addressing blight caused by zombie homes and holding them accountable for the health and safety of the affected communities. As a result of these lawsuits, HPD has been contacted by servicing companies about addressing the maintenance issues at not only the properties that were subject to the lawsuits, but also at other zombie homes across New York City,” said Elizabeth Johnson, team member of the Zombie Homes Initiative. “The City will continue to file lawsuits against non-compliant mortgage holders when necessary, but HPD also looks forward to collaborating with mortgage holders to proactively ensure that these properties are properly maintained.”

The database constructed by HPD’s Zombie Homes Initiative relies upon exterior surveys of homes and aggregated information about the properties.

“The Zombie Homes Database is a collection of multiple data sources from different city and state agencies in New York. Using all these data, the Database runs a prediction model that measures the likelihood of any NYC property to be a zombie property,” said Ricardo Martinez Campos (MCP ’17) also a Zombie Initiative team member. “We hope that this data-driven approach will help us be more targeted in our efforts moving forward, particularly in identifying future potential zombie homes that could be eligible for lawsuits.”

The agency is also working in implementing these data-driven approaches to launch other pilot programs. An example being Partners in Preservation, a recently announced program HPD is using to identify buildings where tenant-harassment and displacement are most likely to occur.

With funding from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Initiative is designing new approaches to return zombie homes back to productive use while also working with community homeowners in distress to avoid risking foreclosure.

Learn more about the HPD and the Zombie Home Initiative, here.

Header Image (from left to right): Sabrina Bazile, Elizabeth Johnson, Jenny Weyel and Ricardo Martinez Campos

Image credit: New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development and Don Ryan via WHSU Public Radio