City officials plan to use a new law and a new state grant to target hundreds of “zombie” properties in Kingston. By combining better cataloging of housing stock, stepped-up code enforcement and more effective marketing, Mayor Steve Noble said he hopes to clean up long-vacant and deteriorating houses that still litter the city nearly a decade after the housing crisis.
“We’re really looking at properties that have been vacant a long time and are having a negative impact on neighborhoods,” Noble said this week.
Nobody knows for sure how many zombie properties are in Kingston. Brenna Robinson, director of the city’s Office of Community Development, said the city had identified 52 vacant properties on 32 streets either through the “block by block” code enforcement inspections, because they had been seized by the city for back taxes or been subject to action by the Building Department. But, Robinson said, there were “obviously” many more based on census data which shows a 3.2 percent vacancy rate in single-family homes in the city. Noble estimated there may be 200 or more citywide. In many cases, the buildings are owned by banks following foreclosure actions or have simply been abandoned by previous owners. Often, banks and absentee owners neglect basic maintenance tasks, leaving behind unsightly, decaying and dangerous houses that become less likely to return to the market with each passing year.
To address the issue, the Common Council has adopted new legislation which replaces a 2014 law. Under the new law, banks must provide written notice within 10 days of filing a foreclosure action against a property. Previously, property owners were simply required to give notice once a building actually became vacant. The legislation also sets forth a schedule of escalating fees for each year the building remains vacant — $1,200 for the first two years, escalating to $8,200 after eight years. The new law also adds a requirement that owners of vacant properties carry insurance of at least $300,000 for one- and two-family homes and $1 million for multi-family residences and commercial properties. Noble said the fees would help fund code enforcement efforts and hopefully result in more vacant properties moving back onto the market.
“We want to encourage people who have these properties not to sit on them,” said Noble.
Hand in hand with the new law, the city will use a new $150,000 grant through the state Attorney General’s Office to address zombie properties. The money comes from a $150 million settlement between Morgan Stanley Bank and the AG’s Office stemming from the bank’s role in selling the mortgage-backed bonds that helped fuel the 2008 economic meltdown.
Robinson said the money would fund several initiatives, including a citywide housing inventory to identify vacant buildings and their owners, and determine whether they are properly registered. The grant will also help pay for a full-time administrative assistant in the city community development office who will maintain a database of zombie properties and reach out to residents facing foreclosure with information on potential relief. They money will also help pay for a full-time code enforcement officer.
Robinson said the city was also moving ahead with legislation to create a state-designated “land bank” to handle the maintenance and disposal of properties seized by the city for back taxes. Land banks are quasi-governmental entities headed by an independent board of directors tasked with clearing titles, holding deeds to city-owned properties, maintaining them and eventually selling them.
Mayor vetoes house sale
Noble issued the first veto of his administration last month when he canceled a deal to sell a vacant house to a city employee, citing concerns about transparency and adherence to an established process for the sale of surplus property.
The sale concerned a vacant property at 416 First Ave. that was obtained by the city in early 2015 for nonpayment of taxes. On Sept. 13, the council’s Finance Committee approved the sale of house to Kingston police officer Allen Nace. The vote came the same day Nace wrote a letter to the council offering $15,000 for the property. Nace said that he had been interested in buying the property for several years and in July had actually arrested two suspects cutting and removing copper pipes from the house. Nace added that he was a licensed plumber and planned to have the house fully renovated within two years. Nace told the committee that he planned to use the house as a single-family residence for his daughter. He wrote that he had become aware of the house’s availability after it was listed on a city website.
“I was informed that to in order to obtain a piece of city-owned property that I needed to attend a public auction and it would be awarded to the highest bidder,” Nace wrote in a letter to the council received the same day they were set to approve the sale of the house at auction. “It is my understanding that this has yet to be put into effect as the Common Council is voting on this resolution this evening.”
The Finance Committee convened shortly before the full council meeting and voted to approve the sale. The full council approved it the same evening. Three days later Noble issued his veto. In a communication to the council, Noble wrote noted that the committee had approved the sale without discussing the matter in depth or meeting with Nace. Noble added that the property had not been listed with a realtor or put up for any kind of competitive public process.
Noble said this week he had no issue with Nace as a potential buyer, but only if he participated in a public process.
“Someone like [Nace] would be a great person to buy that property and renovate it,” said Noble. “But if the city is going to sell property, especially to one of our own employees, there really needs to be a competitive process.”
On Oct. 4, following a closed-door meeting with Corporation Counsel Kevin Bryant, a motion to overturn the veto only got two votes in favor. Noble said he had asked the council to either place the property up for auction with other city-held parcels later this year, or place the decision back before the Finance Committee following advertisement of its availability to the general public. Nace, Noble said, is eligible to participate in either process.