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Erie County sends Buffalo homeowner 'Zombies Initiative' letter in error, leads to worries

Posted at 6:58 PM, Sep 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-17 19:42:40-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — A homeowner nightmare has left one woman worried about losing her home, over what appeared to be some sort of mistake.

The Buffalo resident reached out to 7 Eyewitness News looking for help after she tried resolving a questionable letter but was unable to reach personnel.

Wiltena Arnold said she received a letter from the Erie County Zombie Property Task Force. The letter claims her home is vacant, and proof needed to be provided that it was not.

Arnold has lived in her Buffalo home on Connelly Avenue, since 2018. She has actually owned the home, since 2006.

"They[realtor] took me around, showed me a couple of places. I just didn't like them. When I came here, it was right after the October '06, bad weather. There were things out there and I looked right at the house and said, 'This is mine'. Just like that," Wiltena Arnold told Pheben Kassahun.

However, to her surprise, the retiree received a "Zombies Initiative" letter from the Erie County Clerk's Office stating her beloved home had possibly been vacant, in 2020.

Arnold said, "I went away for a few days downstate, that's in Westchester County. On my arrival yesterday, I opened the mailbox and saw these letters. The moment I saw it was from the county, I thought, 'The county? I paid my taxes already!'"

The New York resident, who moved upstate after working 40 years as a corrections officer in Westchester County, said she has tried to get in contact with the county officials but has had no luck.

"I tried to call. No answer. So, I hang up a couple of times. Then, I tried to call after I spoke to you and I got the answering service," Arnold said. So I left a message, 'Please call me back. I want to speak to someone verbally, not no machine."

She is worried if she does not connect with someone at the office, her home that she has worked so hard to renovate could be in danger.

"Who knows they would come and tear my house down just on purpose," Arnold said. "I spent at least $150,000 on this house, and I'm still working on it. New doors, things to keep me secure, cameras. It's not fair."

Feeling frustrated, Arnold turned to So 7 Eyewitness News for help, and we reached out to the county for answers.

However, Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns said Arnold received the letter in error.

"I'll apologize, myself. We knew that there was a possibility that there would be some people that received this letter. We've had some excellent success stories from the letter, but we do apologize that we know that there was some people who maintained their home. It's a beautiful home and received this letter inadvertently," Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns said.

In an effort to fight the foreclosure issue in New York, Kearns introduced this foreclosure prevention law to the state which passed in 2016.

At the local level, the Erie County Clerk's "Zombies Initiative" works with the county clerk's office and the Western New York Law Center to identify homes at risk for foreclosure sooner so that efforts can be made to prevent zombie properties.

What classifies a home to be in a zombiatic state?

  1. A zombie home is a vacant property where the homeowner moves out, due to mortgage default and threat of foreclosure.
  2. The home then becomes a "zombie" because the bank has not completed the foreclosure process.
  3. In some cases, the bank decides to abandon the foreclosure years after, determining it no longer wants the property, which can lead to the banks to get the tax, insurance, and accounting benefits from documenting a loss.
  4. Because of this, the zombie properties can haunt former homeowners who find themselves liable for properties they did not even realize they still owned; all while the property continues to depreciate and impact property values in communities.

"So, just to clarify, all zombie properties are vacant, but not all vacant properties are zombie properties. What we're trying to get at is a zombie property that has a mortgage attached to it. There's a very specific law- under New York State Law, that that property falls within. That we utilize, to make sure that the bank is keeping the property up to the standard that's required by that law," Western New York Law Center vacant and abandoned properties program director, Kate Lockhart said.

It is something as simple as a vacant property not having a mortgage, possibly a family member who was given the home through a will and is unaware a family has moved out of it due to its condition, or if it's investor-owned and the investor has neglected it.

According to the county, there are about 230 vacant and abandoned properties in Western New York, since the initiative launched in April 2019.

Kearns said there is a reason for the influx of letters being sent out.He added, "So, now with COVID-19, there will be a rush to file foreclosures in the clerk's office. If we get these phone calls in, we don't want to be waiting until and be reactive, we want to be proactive."

The Erie County Clerk's Office said there is no fine if a homeowner does not respond to the letter.

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7 Eyewitness News also looked into the number of properties pending legal action:

  • 2018: 1,475
  • 2019: 1254
  • 2020: 473
  • 2021: 249 (as of September 17)