December 2, 2021

Zombie crackdown

Jacob DeRochie/contributing photographer

Director of City Codes William Knickerbocker stands in front of a zombie property on Forrest Avenue Tuesday afternoon. The city of Cortland is working on a new program aimed at keeping homeowners in their homes while combating zombie and vacant properties.

A private contractor, hired by a mortgage company, has shoveled snow from the sidewalk in front of a home on Forrest Avenue. When the grass gets high enough it gets mowed.

The place isn’t falling down. It actually looks like someone lives there. Nobody does.

Elin Pantas lives next door to the unsightly “zombie” property. The rest of the neighborhood is a nice place, Pantas said Tuesday afternoon, but that property?. “It’s an eyesore,” she said.

A new program the city of Cortland has been working on would help people to stay in their homes, making sure the property doesn’t go by the wayside. It would improve enforcement and make managing vacant and zombie properties easier.

“We’ve seen an uptick,” William Knickerbocker, director of city codes and deputy fire chief, said of vacant properties.

Around 70 or so properties throughout the city are on the vacant and zombie property list. “It fluctuates,” Knickerbocker said. “Anywhere from 60 to 80 (properties).”

The city is working with WCP Consultants to create the program and a computer database to support it. The computer program will use a cloud-based software to manage assets, facilities, maintenance, permits and licenses, according to a report from WCP Consultants outlined at a recent city Common Council meeting.

The database can also be used to track and schedule inspections, citations and warnings; create letters such as a notice of violation; and map and attach parcel information.

“The goal is to be more in tune with properties that could become vacant and also make solutions,” Mayor Brian Tobin said.

The project goals, according to Scott Burto, owner of WCP Consultants, are:

• Create and implement an outreach program to connect homeowners at risk of foreclosure with foreclosure prevention resources.

• Develop and maintain a database to track vacant, zombie, abandoned properties and properties at risk by collecting, tracking and organizing information for the affected properties.

• Continue to develop and enforce the city’s vacant property registry.

• Identify and intervene to prevent properties from becoming vacant.

The program would assist homeowners by putting them in contact with community groups that offer counseling services, credit services, and employment and training programs, according to the report.

Zombie properties are different from vacant properties. Zombies have been functionally abandoned, often in foreclosure, and allowed to fall into disrepair, according to the state Department of Financial Services.

The city is using $100,000 from a state Local Initiatives Support Corporation grant for its zombie and vacant properties remediation and prevention initiatives.

Knickerbocker said the codes office still needs to get the database and become trained. That could take several months.