This is an exciting opportunity for students to fulfill their Columbia 40-hour and the New York State 50-hour pro bono requirements remotely. Students are needed to help stabilize and protect communities across New York from the problem of “Zombie Properties” in accordance with a new law passed in 2016. Zombie Properties are vacant and neglected properties whose owners have fled the premises under threat of foreclosure, becoming the responsibilities of the mortgage holders, usually banks. After completing the required online training, volunteers will fill out the “Volunteer Property Report” which will help municipalities and the Western New York Law Center investigate and identify non-compliant mortgage holders and hold them accountable for not maintaining vacant properties that are on the brink of foreclosure. Students, working in conjunction with advisors at the Western New York Law Center, will access public records and examine various legal documents associated with the mortgage foreclosure process. This research can be done remotely through online databases and all training materials will be accessible through the Zombie Property Project website.
In the case of zombie properties, the foreclosure process begins because the property owner has stopped making mortgage payments, but it is not completed, leaving the property in a “limbo” state. As of now, there are thousands of these properties across the State and they create fire, health, and safety hazards- a recent study showed a correlation with a rise in gun violence- while bringing down neighboring property values. These abandoned properties are a blighting influence on their neighborhoods and communities have asked their municipalities to take action. The mortgage holders, usually banks and mortgage servicers, should be responsible but many municipalities lack the time, resources, and expertise to track down who should be responsible.
How New Law and Project Will Help
The NY legislature has passed a law aimed at eliminating these properties by allowing municipalities to fine mortgage holders $500/day per property for every day that the homes are not maintained. This has the positive effect of getting the parties who are responsible for the upkeep of these properties to finally act and will ultimately serve as an incentive for these mortgage holders to try to keep homeowners in their properties, instead of abandoning them. As this initiative is working in tandem with efforts by county officials and the WNY Law Center to make homeowners facing foreclosure aware that free legal help is available through the Center, students can be involved in a project that may also help current homeowners. Studies have shown that homeowners who obtain legal assistance are 10x more likely to negotiate more favorable terms that allow them to remain in their homes and communities.