Zombie properties stalk Southern Tier’s low-income residents

Matt Martin
February 19, 2014

Neighborhoods across the Southern Tier became over run with vacant homes after the economic recession. Investors came in and bought these properties on the cheap, made minimal improvements, and then rented them out to low-income tenants. Officials are struggling to find a solution.

“There’s one, there’s two, there’s three, there’s four, and we’ve gone maybe half a city block. Four of them.”

Fred Grisel is a code enforcement officer for the City of Binghamton. He counts off the vacant houses he sees as he drives down Virgil Street on Binghamton’s north side.

Abandoned and blighted properties have become an ugly scar on the face of the Southern Tier. Over the past few decades the population of the region has been cut in half, leaving many of the houses built by the industrial boom empty and rotting.

Grisel says the cycle starts when out-of-town investors buy these properties on the cheap at city auction. Often, they’ve never laid eyes on the building.

“Some people buy them because they know they can fix them up with a minimal amount of money and make ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars.”

They do what’s needed to get them to code and rent them out. He stops at a house on Morgan Street.

“Now here is one that is absolute minimum code. And I don’t think it’s going to take much for you to figure it out.”

The front porch is slanted and looks like its about to fall over.

“And the owner’s idea of fixing the porch, you see that new 12 by 12 post sitting there in the front right? Does it meet the minimum code? Yeah. But it’s by no manner or means proper.”

And that’s what’s frustrating for Grisel. As long as landlords meet the minimum standards there’s nothing the city can do about it. And he says many times, once the investor has made a profit, he’s done dealing with the property.

“So some of them try to put it on the market and that doesn’t work, so they just board them up and walk away. “

Then the city puts it up for auction again and the whole cycle repeats itself. 

“Yep, it does. Real estate recycling.”

Zombie Properties

In Binghamton alone, there are 242 vacant properties. The city of Elmira has 177.  But the problem affects all of upstate New York.

Rob Silverman is an urban planning professor at the University at Buffalo. He’s been looking into the impacts of vacant and blighted properties. He calls these buildings zombie properties.

“So when you get a concentration of those types of properties in a neighborhood, they tend to have a negative impact on the surrounding properties and they begin to kind of take over the whole landscape.”

Just like an invading army of flesh eating zombies. Silverman says it’s difficult to stop of their spread once a neighborhood is infected.

He says it’s not just that people are forced to live in shabby apartments. These types of properties have another, more profound impact.

“If people get the sense the rest of the city doesn’t value their community as much, there can be kind of a ripple effect of vacancy that impacts people's sense of belonging to the broader society or their sense of how much access they have to opportunities.”

One Dollar Healthy Home Initiative

Governments across the state are struggling to deal with this problem. The City of Binghamton has had some luck with a program called the One Dollar Healthy Home Initiative.

If an interested buyer has a plan to redevelop a vacant home, the city will sell it to them for a dollar. And they’ll also reimburse the new owner up to $100,000 in repairs.

Sarah Edwards saw an opportunity. She’s already fixed up one home and is working on her second.

“So this is it. This is how they start out. It’s disgusting.”

There are holes in the walls, pieces of wood and garbage litter the floor, and a heavy odor of cat urine hangs in the air.

“I mean everything comes out, taken down to the studs. The roof comes off…”

Edwards is a single mother and knows what it’s like to struggle financially. When she rented out her first renovated apartment, she let the tenants set the price they could afford.

“Who can work a minimum wage job and pay $600 plus gas and electric, plus insurance on your car, if you have a car. And 90% of them have children.”

She knows she could be making more money, but says that’s not the point. She wants to make sure people have access to a quality rental property.

“Granite counter tops and nice carpeting. The accessories that are inside the house, what we would want, what everybody would want. But affordable for them.”

The city has fixed 5 homes through the program. But not every vacant home can be saved.

Demolition

“From first appearance the building doesn’t look too bad, but you see how the roof is starting to cave in on the top there.”

Back in the car with Fred Grisel, he points out a home the city is set to demolish. We drive around the block to get a better look at the house.

“Quite a difference, huh?”

“Yeah, there’s not even a wall on that building.”

“Yep. That’s exactly what I am talking about. It’s a blight to the whole neighborhood. And that’s why we are aggressively going after these houses.”

So far the city of Binghamton has demolished 15 vacant homes. Officials are hoping by using demolition and the planned redevelopment of vacant homes, they can increase the quality of rental properties in depressed neighborhoods.