Cities across the country are still struggling with the aftermath of the mortgage crisis. Officials in Poughkeepsie in New York’s Hudson Valley are facing a sharp increase in the number of abandoned properties — and they say that’s stressing the city budget. Acacia Squires went there to examine why — and find out what relief might be in sight.
Building Inspector Gary Beck Jr. starting working for the City of Poughkeepsie fourteen years ago. Back then, there were 25 buildings the city’s nuisance property list – mostly charged with having peeling paint or messy yards. Today the list has grown to nearly 300 homes. And Beck says these buildings need more than just a new coat of paint, because nobody is taking care of them.
Act (Beck): Just about two years ago we really started having a difficult time finding anyone responsible for these properties.
Driving down an oak lined street, he points out dilapidated houses.
Act (Beck): Here we are on Hooker Ave. This grey one here. This blue one, yeah, this blue one. The yellow one.
There are three just on this block. Banks haven’t foreclosed on these homes, instead, the owners found themselves underwater – they owe more on their mortgages than the houses are actually worth, so they walked away leaving the properties to decay and the city to take care of them. Beck stops his black SUV in front of a yellow Victorian.
Act (Beck): Can you see it’s boarded on the front door. See the garage the same thing, that’s dilapidated. The columns are starting to fall, the stone pillars are failing.
Sound: Getting out of the car and walking toward the house. Sounds of traffic, dogs and walking through tall grass. Down and under next narrations.
He gets out of the car and heads around the back of the house. His crew was here a couple of weeks ago to clear out garbage and cut back the tall grass, but both problems are back.
Act (Beck): It’s frustrating. The public, they constantly call us and then it makes it look like we aren’t doing our job because it keeps happening over and over again.
The problem doesn’t stop at trash and weeds. (Cut out ambi) Poughkeepsie’s Mayor, John Tkazyik, says these properties put heavy demands on several city departments.
Act (Tkazyik): Causes a lot of stress to the Police Department. There are fires set at times, which puts a burden on the fire department. And then of course the expense that it brings to all of us, time, resources, equipment, man power.
One official estimates these issues cost the city over 100,000 dollars a year. Another says, it’s impossible to estimate. Poughkeepsie has to take care of the homes, because they’re in legal limbo. This time last year, New York State passed a law pinning the responsibility for maintaining foreclosed properties on banks. But if a bank hasn’t foreclosed, it’s not responsible for upkeep. Poughkeepsie’s Chief Legal Officer, Paul Ackermann says that period of time between when the owners walk away, and the bank finally forecloses, is the city’s biggest concern.
Act (Ackerman): Nobody, nobody is taking care of the property during that period of time. The owner is in there saying, you know what, I give the property back to the bank, and the bank is saying, we are not foreclosing.
There are a number of reasons why banks might drag their feet on foreclosures. They might not have the correct documentation, or there may be a backlog. Tkazyik believes there’s another reason.
Act (Tkazyik): They are holding out for the market to turn around, to get the best bang for their buck.
Whatever the reason, Poughkeepsie isn’t the only city that’s having a hard time taking care of abandoned properties.
Act (Brooks): The abandoned and vacant property issue is absolutely a national problem.
James Brooks studies housing issues at the National League of Cities, an advocacy group in Washington DC. He thinks the situation may be turning aroun in part because some of the country’s largest lenders have agreed to shell out a twenty-five billion dollar settlement. Some of the money will go to reduce payments for homeowners with underwater mortgages. Brooks thinks that might help the cities feel some relief.
Act (Brooks): I think we might even be at the beginning of the end, as opposed to the end of the beginning. The hope is I think that with mortgage holders are on track to get some resolution so that ultimately more people will remain in their homes with loans they can manage.
But Poughkeepsie Mayor John Tkazyik wonders why cities like his aren’t getting part of the settlement directly. He wrote a letter to New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asking for a slice of New York’s hundred-thirty-million-dollar share of the banks’ money. He recently heard back.
Act (Tkazyik): They said that they are now piecing together the portions of the settlement package and they would consider the aid to the municipalities because again we don’t have the expenses in our budget.
But the city can’t count on it, and until the details are worked out, Poughkeepsie still has to pay high price tags for some of its efforts. For example, an abandoned home in the city went up in flames last month. Building inspector Building Inspector Gary Beck Jr. stands in front of what’s left, a pile of debris six feet tall and half the length of a basketball court.
Act (Beck): We had to hire a contractor to come in and demolish it so that it wouldn’t fall in on anybody.
Poughkeepsie officials gathered residents at a local high school to think of what to do next. The City is collaborating with a New York City law school to develop a strategy. The plan will include ideas both with, and without, that settlement money.
Acacia Squires, Columbia Radio news.