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Data-sharing system aimed at combating 'zombie' homes

Mike Desmond/WBFO

Cities, towns and villages in Erie County will soon be notified weekly about foreclosures in their communities, potentially allowing them to look for "zombie" homes, buildings in the process of foreclosure which have been abandoned by the homeowners, bringing down neighboring property values.

County Clerk Michael Kearns says the data is already in the county computer system. It will be combined into a single continuing database to notify local governments. The results will start showing up for local government officials on January 29.

The new ALERT system will allow governments to work with the Western New York Law Center, which tries to keep people in their homes, even if in the foreclosure process. Kearns says it may also shame banks which are keeping data unreported about foreclosures.

"Not every bank is reporting to the Department of Financial Services. I guarantee you that there's not 100% compliance. So, if there is not 100% compliance, we know that there's vacant properties sitting in the communities, bringing down the value of those properties. Remember, if there's a vacant property next door to your house, you can lose your homeowners insurance," Kearns said at a news conference Friday.

Kearns and the law center's Foreclosure Data Manager Kate Lockhart says a key goal is to make homeowners aware they may be in danger of losing their home but they can live in it until the process is complete. Lockhart says lenders sometimes abandon the process, leaving the homeowner back in control.

Credit Mike Desmond/WBFO

"I've personally spoken with multiple homeowners where I call them and tell them, 'Hey, did do you know you're still the owner of this and that the bank discharged the lien and there is no mortgage against the house anymore?,' and they had no idea. We've had situations where homeowners have moved back into the house so it's no longer vacant. We've had situations where homeowners sell those houses," Lockhart said.

In an unknown number of cases, the banks bail from the foreclosure process, leaving the homeowner still the homeowner and not knowing about it and still liable for things like property taxes.