Modified: September 15, 2021 1:02pm
As with many community issues, the battle against zombie properties and the fight to preserve homeownership has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With many families struggling, the statewide default rate on mortgages soared to 11.8% last year. As recently as April 2021 the rate was 5.3%. At the height of the foreclosure crisis of the Great Recession, the mortgage default rate topped out at 3.8%. Given these staggering numbers, we anticipate another foreclosure crisis of greater magnitude.
To counter the impacts of the upcoming surge of foreclosures, a separate court part should be temporarily and specifically devoted to handle foreclosure matters in Erie County. The streamlining of functions and focus on this single case type, similar to drug and housing courts, would serve our community by promptly resolving issues with foreclosure actions and preventing banks from allowing properties to fall into disrepair. Continual policy changes at both the state and federal level require constant attention, and it would be useful to have a court part dedicated to this issue, ensuring that homeowners are protected and zombie properties are not left to linger in our neighborhoods.
Under current conditions, banks and servicers often fail to move forward with foreclosures on vacant properties. When the foreclosure process takes too long and loan servicers do not maintain the properties, zombie properties become crisis points for communities. This not only creates blight in neighborhoods, but the vacant homes also provide safe harbor to illegal activity.
Many families living next to zombie properties attest, the longer a property sits vacant, the more likely property conditions will deteriorate. Delays in the foreclosure process, due to congested courts, overburdened lender’s attorneys, or other issues, may not seem like a big deal on a calendar, but the resulting days can translate into major condition issues for properties. Often, the longer a property sits vacant, the more work required restore compliance with building codes. If compliance is impossible, then a demolition is required. Recently we witnessed the cumulative impact of these delays in Sloan, Kenmore and Clarence, where demolitions resulted in vacant lots. Preservation of homeownership and the tax revenue it generates is our primary goal.
We always say “the best zombie prevention is home retention.” A separate foreclosure part also helps ensure homeowners are properly tutored on all available home retention options. Given the complexities of these options, a dedicated court part would serve the interests of all involved and allow court staff to stay current on the ever-evolving rules and policies surrounding foreclosure issues. Communities, families, and our region as a whole benefit from the preservation of homeownership, and when that’s not possible, the timely transition of a property to a new, responsible owner.
If you or someone you know is behind on their mortgage or tax payments, please visit stayinyourhomewny.com or call the Erie County Clerk’s Office at 858-6985 to learn about free local services available to keep you in your home or help you find transition options if home retention is not possible.