Zombie Fight Project: Paving the Way to Success
By: Christine Marino
Over the last 50 years, the steady population decline of the City of Niagara Falls has been met with an increase of zombie properties city wide. The good news is that the city now has an avenue to remedy this issue via the new Zombie Fight Project.
The Zombie Fight Project (ZFP) was created in response to the new Zombie Property and Foreclosure Prevention Law (Dec. 20, 2016). The ultimate goal of the project is to reduce the number of vacant houses in the City of Niagara Falls by working with the community to keep at-risk homeowners in their homes; putting good homeowners back in to currently vacant homes; and by holding property owners accountable for the upkeep of their properties. This seems like a tall order, but given our strong start, we are confident that the project will be a success.
Like any successful project, we have seen our fair share of challenges. Until recently, our biggest challenge was the lack of access to the legally mandated list of bank reported zombie properties that was to be managed and distributed by the Department of Financial Services (DFS). Instead of allowing this lack of information to stop the progress of the project, we allowed it to propel us towards success by applying the law in a way that would allow us to establish suspected blighted properties (reported to us directly from the community) as zombie properties.
On May 9, we sent out three teams armed with iPads running the digital app we created for this project, to complete our first round of inspections on the community reported properties. This documentation will eventually give us the opportunity to legally establish these properties as zombies, which will allow them to fall under the new law. On May 23, we finally gained access to the list of properties from DFS, which is a huge step in the right direction. This allows us to aggressively apply the law and pursue legal recourse on the DFS reported properties. We completed inspections on 15 of those properties on May 31 and plan to have test cases in State Supreme Court by the end of June.
The real win is that we now have two lists of properties to investigate, which opens two different avenues in which we can apply the law: ~100 zombie properties collected and verified by the Department of Financial Services, and ~80 suspected zombie properties reported directly from community members. If we add citing existing code violations documented by Code Enforcement to the mix, we now have three different paths that allow us to take action on these properties, which gives us a higher probability for success.
We mapped the addresses of the reported zombie properties, which revealed that they are equally distributed throughout the city; downtown, DeVeaux, LaSalle and the center city area are all home to multiple zombie properties. The properties do not show concentration in one area over another, which brings me to the community; the heart of the project.
ZFP is only successful if it helps make the community a better place to work and live, but it can only be as successful as the community that supports it. Yes, the process might be slow, but it is my true feeling that we are moving in a positive direction. It’s no longer a question of “IF” we can successfully turn these properties around; it’s now a matter of “WHEN.” Will there be challenges, setbacks and roadblocks to maneuver along the way? Of course! But, if we stay the course and continue to work together, we will see progress and we will reach our goal.
“What can I do?” is a question I have been fielding lately. So, what can YOU do? Stay involved; join us at community meetings; keep participating; keep reporting zombie properties; tell your friends and neighbors that may be in danger of foreclosure to contact us; know your rights; follow us on social media; keep connecting with us.
We hope to see you at the next community meeting!
Christine Marino is the Zombie Fight Project Coordinator for the Niagara Falls Community Development Department.