GLENS FALLS — Determining why properties are vacant in the city is proving to be no simple task.
Consultant J.D. Ellingsworth told the Building and Codes Committee last week a property may look abandoned for a variety of reasons. The house could already have been foreclosed upon or could be going through the bank process.
Some houses are tied up with estate issues in which the original owner died, and the heirs are trying to figure out what to do with the the property. Other houses may be under renovation. Others may have owners who choose not to live in the house for whatever reason.
“The solution to each of these things is going to be different depending on what is ultimately the reason,” he said.
Ellingsworth was hired by the Common Council at a rate of $20 per hour as part of its crackdown on so-called “zombie properties.” Ellingsworth, a retired firefighter who did building inspections, said he has been researching deeds, studying legal notices and driving through residential areas to inspect properties.
The effort is being funded through a $90,000 grant from the state Attorney General’s Office and $45,000 in community development money.
The project has an advisory committee comprising Ellingsworth, city Building Inspector John Ward, Police Chief Tony Lydon and Fire Chief James Schrammel. The city attorney’s office will also ultimately be involved, Ellingsworth said.
Ellingsworth started from a list of about 92 properties that were in question. He estimated 30 to 40 properties are vacant for a variety of reasons but cautioned that is a rough estimate. He’s unsure about another 10.
“Hopefully, within a month or two, I can have a better answer for you. We’re really at the information-gathering stage. How big is the problem?” he said.
Property records may not be up to date, Ellingsworth said.
The foreclosure process can be lengthy and drag on for years, according to Councilwoman-At-Large Jane Reid, who is a lawyer. The bank technically does not own properties on which the foreclosure process is ongoing.
“Until the foreclosure process is finished, they don’t own it,” she said.
State law has been changed to give municipalities more power to force banks to address problems at these properties. Even if banks technically do not own the property, their lien constitutes a legal interest.
The city can insist banks maintain buildings to minimum standards, shut off the water, clean up the garbage, mow the grass and secure the house so kids are not breaking in, according to Reid.
The city’s crews can clean up the property and add those expenses to the back taxes, she said.
Councilwoman Diana Palmer said the city will have to triage the worst cases.
Ellingsworth said Ward will be familiar with some of the landlords, who own property throughout the state.
“My focus is more on houses that we don’t have a readily identifiable person that we can call locally,” Ellingsworth said.
Ellingsworth said he wants to identify “at-risk” homes that may be in the foreclosure process, so they do not become an issue.
Reid said the city is being pro-active and that will make a big difference.
“Word is going to get out that you’re now on the job,” she said. “People are going to know that it’s being paid attention to.”
Councilman Scott Endieveri was also optimistic.
“You even get half those houses back on the tax rolls, what a difference it’s going to make,” he said.
Ward said the city does not have as much of an issue with zombie properties as other cities.
“I actually think Glens Falls is lucky as a whole compared to some other communities,” he said.
Many of the houses are vacant because of estate problems, Reid said.
“I don’t think as many are going to be in foreclosure as our constituents think,” she said.