Southampton Town Considers Program To Register Zombie Homes And Absent Owners - 27 East

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Southampton Town Considers Program To Register Zombie Homes And Absent Owners

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Southampton Town Public Safety Administrator Ryan Murphy  touring a zombie house in Eastport. KITTY MERRILL

Southampton Town Public Safety Administrator Ryan Murphy touring a zombie house in Eastport. KITTY MERRILL

Through the zombie house window, droppings are visible, indicating animal habitation. KITTY MERRILL

Through the zombie house window, droppings are visible, indicating animal habitation. KITTY MERRILL

One of about 100 vacant homes, this zombie house in Eastport is bank-owned. KITTY MERRILL

One of about 100 vacant homes, this zombie house in Eastport is bank-owned. KITTY MERRILL

Southampton Town Public Safety Administrator Ryan Murphy made note of multiple access points for animals in the Eastport zombie house. KITTY MERRILL

Southampton Town Public Safety Administrator Ryan Murphy made note of multiple access points for animals in the Eastport zombie house. KITTY MERRILL

There are an estimated 300 houses in foreclosure in the Town of Southampton, 100 of them vacant and deteriorating like this one in Eastport. KITTY MERRILL

There are an estimated 300 houses in foreclosure in the Town of Southampton, 100 of them vacant and deteriorating like this one in Eastport. KITTY MERRILL

There are an estimated 300 houses in foreclosure in the Town of Southampton, 100 of them vacant and deteriorating like this one in Eastport. KITTY MERRILL

There are an estimated 300 houses in foreclosure in the Town of Southampton, 100 of them vacant and deteriorating like this one in Eastport. KITTY MERRILL

Rotting wood, falling ceiling insulation, animal excrement, and forsaken furniture are visible through plexiglass used to secure the abandoned house. KITTY MERRILL

Rotting wood, falling ceiling insulation, animal excrement, and forsaken furniture are visible through plexiglass used to secure the abandoned house. KITTY MERRILL

Southampton Town has identified a neglected house on North Bay Avenue in Eastport as a

Southampton Town has identified a neglected house on North Bay Avenue in Eastport as a "zombie house." BRENDAN J. O'REILLY

Southampton Town has identified a neglected house on North Bay Avenue in Eastport as a

Southampton Town has identified a neglected house on North Bay Avenue in Eastport as a "zombie house." BRENDAN J. O'REILLY

authorKitty Merrill on Nov 16, 2020

Built in 1908 in the American farmhouse style, the four-bedroom house once boasted cozy, meandering additions, a front porch that beckoned with a wooden rocking chair, a bay window in the parlor perfect for relaxing on a sunny afternoon. Scalloped shingles and contrast paint on a dormer signal someone once cared about the charming home.

Now, it looks like no one does.

The once-friendly porch sags. The side porch defies gravity, moldering planks a danger. Window casings are rotted and moss grows on sections of the roof as shingles lift from decay, exposing crumbling flashing. A look inside the bay window reveals filthy sofas scattered as if tossed by a giant’s hand. Insulation hangs from the ceiling, stalactites of neglect. Oddly, a huge projection television sits on the side of a room littered with trash, animal feces, and discarded childproofing gates.

The abandoned Eastport abode looks like nobody cares.

There are an estimated 100 vacant houses in Southampton Town that look like nobody cares.

But Ryan Murphy does; it’s his job.

As the Southampton Town code compliance administrator, it’s Mr. Murphy’s responsibility to address neglected, blighted and abandoned properties. He’s the one who receives community member complaints when a zombie house becomes evident in a neighborhood. It’s the job of his department to try to track down the “responsible party” obliged to cut grass and secure, if not improve, vacant houses.

Finding the owner of a property in foreclosure is a hurdle-strewn undertaking. Sometimes the owners don’t want to be found. Sometimes a bank takes the house, then sells the mortgage over and over. Other times a bank might list a property under a different name, to make it seem as if it’s owned by an individual.

During a discussion with the Southampton Town Board in October, Mr. Murphy reported several properties like the one in Eastport are owned by a fictitious “Mr. Cooper.” He’s not sure why banks do that.

The administrator appeared before the board to gauge members’ interest in a program that, if successful, could make finding absent owners easier, and may even help homeowners keep their houses.

There’s a national firm called ProChamps that partners with communities to search and share information about properties that are in foreclosure or at risk of foreclosure. The company maintains a database, and subscribing municipalities can access the names of responsible parties at no cost beyond the annual subscription. Mr. Murphy reported that ProChamps found close to 300 houses in or near foreclosure in Southampton. Around 100 of them are vacant.

The problem has been similarly addressed in other municipalities, like the towns of Riverhead, Islip, and Babylon. Companies go through listings like lis pendens public notices of real estate lawsuits, title searches and foreclosures and create a huge database of potential zombie houses.

In addition to finding the information about the properties themselves, ProChamps can also aid in tracking down and enabling communication between municipalities and responsible parties, be they homeowners, banks, or management companies employed by financial institutions.

“The idea here is to stop a property from falling into this condition to begin with,” Mr. Murphy said. “But if they do happen to go down that road, to be able to have a reliable communication method to get in touch with the reliable party, the owners and managers, so that we can get the properties attended to.”

Zombie homes — abandoned and neglected houses at some stage of foreclosure — can be more than just an eyesore in a neighborhood. As happened with the Eastport house, animals can get inside, and the subsequent destruction wrought can make the zombie house neglected even longer as potential buyers are deterred by huge renovation and repair costs. Additionally, during the visit to Eastport last week, Mr. Murphy said, vacant houses can draw squatters and drug dealers, becoming an unwanted home base for criminal activity. At the abandoned farmhouse, he took note of cars parked on the site. Neighbors will often do that to make it seem like a house is occupied. “Sometimes I even encourage it,” he said.

Back in Southampton Town Hall, Mr. Murphy explained that ProChamps helps the town implement a registration system for foreclosed properties. It would require the bank — not the individual homeowner — to register and pay a fee, generally around $500. The registration would expire after six months, “Because foreclosed properties tend to change hands frequently,” he clarified.

The registration program does not place any of the burden of the registration or the registration fee on the private homeowner, Mr. Murphy emphasized. “It falls onto the banks.”

ProChamps would take on the arduous task of obtaining information about the properties, a chore that can take town staff hours, even days. Additionally banks would be required to provide that data when a foreclosure is registered.

For example, he said, the bank that owns the Eastport house would be required to divulge contact information for the property management company tasked with taking care of the zombie home. Mr. Murphy said it’s taken his department “months of struggle” to track down that information. Now, focus has shifted to trying to force them to go in and take care of the property. “It’s been a struggle to get the right person to get in there and get the job done,” Mr. Murphy said. “And to hold them accountable.”

The nice part about signing on with a company like ProChamps to implement a program registering bank-owned properties, Mr. Murphy said, is “we don’t have to chase them.” Beyond town concerns, there can be issues for police and fire officials challenged with finding the owner of a property when something untoward occurs.

At the Eastport house, it appears someone has been mowing the lawn; it could be the management company. But at other neglected sites, yards become overgrown and potential public health threats. It becomes, not just a nuisance, but a safety concern, Mr. Murphy said.

Just two weeks ago the town passed a resolution addressing a parcel on Longneck Boulevard in Flanders that’s been a nexus of concern for neighbors for close to eight years. The house was torn down in 2018, but the property continued to deteriorate.

Maintenance issues at that property were the subject of a Flanders Citizens Advisory Committee meeting in 2013, according to minutes on the town website. The town would go in to mow the lawn, but at that particular location, there’s also a bulkhead in a state of disrepair that’s impeding dredging work on a canal and impacting all the neighboring houses.

There’s a “big picture” goal Mr. Murphy envisions with the registration program. The fee attached to the registration is split between the company and the town. So if the fee is $500, the company gets $100 and the town receives the balance. “So it will cost $1,000 a year to have a foreclosed house in Southampton Town,” Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni noted.

ProChamps was able to use data it had already mined to predict how many houses face foreclosure in the Town of Southampton, Mr. Murphy told the Town Board. “They said a safe estimate was about 300 properties annually.”

Reporting that the judges he knows who handle foreclosure proceedings have had their work placed on hold due to the pandemic, Town Attorney James Burke said that once the hold lifts, towns are probably looking at a “two or threefold” increase in foreclosed properties.

At $400 per bank-owned house every six months, the town could derive revenue of $240,000 per year. That money could be used to reinstate the town’s “zombie ranger,” a part-time staffer who was hired through a 2016 state grant. The ranger’s job was to identify at-risk properties and work with owners if possible.

Sometimes the at-risk properties, or those that looked that way, were the result of a problem with a senior citizen “living on the edge,” Councilman John Bouvier said. He wouldn’t want to see a person in such a situation painted with the same brush as banks that own and ignore properties.

“We want to tread lightly,” he said.

Registry revenue could be used to mitigate that, to get people assistance they need to keep their property and avoid punitive action for failing to maintain a property due to circumstances beyond their control. The town could fund a zombie ranger and an in-house caseworker and use the revenue to help provide assistance through the town’s office of housing and community development.

Councilman Schiavoni was curious to know whether ProChamps could demonstrate success in getting houses from zombie status to occupancy. “That’s the goal, isn’t it? We want people living in these houses, not having them sit dormant,” he said, wondering if using the registry decreases the timespan from foreclosure to reoccupancy.

The program is a motivating factor to compel banks to move houses back into occupancy faster, rather than continue to pay the fee, the administrator said, qualifying that he hadn’t seen statistical data to that effect yet.

Board members asked the administrator to look into potential unintended consequences before agreeing to sign on to the program and create a registry.

“This should have been a great property for someone to pick up,” Mr. Murphy said, looking up at the Eastport house. But the house languished, neglected, with no clear party willing to make repairs. Now, Mr. Murphy speculated, only an investor would purchase the house. Left to decay, if it’s not a teardown, it’s a substantial, and costly, renovation.

“Who’s going to be able to go into it with the amount of work that needs to be done?” he asked. “This is not an affordable home anymore.”

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