27 Investigates: City hopes to make ‘zombie homes’ a dying problem

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – You might have heard the term “zombie home” before. They are homes that are a big problem for Youngstown as blighted homes continue to plague the city’s neighborhoods.

Some of these homes still have their mortgages being held by banks and other lending institutions.

There are plenty of stories of those worried about living next to blight. From drug activity to vagrants to fires that break out inside the abandoned properties.

Hector Colon had complained about a blighted home on S. Garland Avenue next to his parent’s home – and then it caught fire. The house sustained smoke damage and it melted some of the siding off. It also put a hole in the roof.

“I was concerned that this could happen with people dumping tires, trash, rodents. I was very concerned about that,” Colon said.

There are efforts to board up the mess, but homeowners in one South Side neighborhood say those don’t go far enough.

“I complain about the one there – the blue one. They tore the boards off the back and the front,” said Flora Betts, resident.

But as we’ve discovered, many of these eyesores have someone holding the mortgage. In fact, of the nearly 500 homes torn down in recent years by the Mahoning County Land Bank, 45-percent of them have been targeted for foreclosure by a bank since 2004.

“That foreclosure kind of trails off. The lender decides not to go all the way with the action and by that time the danger is done,” Betts said.

Betts says these types of homes have a name, “zombies.” Unlike the “Walking Dead,” these don’t go anywhere. People abandon them and banks ultimately buy the mortgages through auctions or sheriff’s sales.

“If they don’t take the foreclosure all the way, they don’t become the owner, they don’t become responsible for maintenance, for selling the property, improving it or anything,” Betts said.

There are remedies. Since 2014, the Land Bank has made use of a nearly $15 million program through the Ohio Housing Finance Agency for demolitions. Many of the homes had delinquent taxes, and the Land Bank took them through court orders. The program calls for another 500 or so blighted homes to be torn down in Mahoning County by the middle of next year.

Years ago, Youngstown started requiring cash foreclosure bonds on abandoned properties. Ian Beniston, with the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation (YNDC), said that saves the city some costs.

“Anytime a bank initiated foreclosure, they have to put up a cash bond with the city. That will be used to tear it down, maintain it, fix it, if the bank didn’t keep it compliant with city code,” Beniston said.

YNDC has also taken over close to 100 homes and have fixed up half of them over the last two years. The efforts do appear to be making progress. What had once been more than 5,000 blighted homes just in Youngstown is now down to around 3,500.

There are still more than 5,000 blighted homes around the county.

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