So far this year, nearly 500 foreclosure applications have been filed in Erie County. That is why County Clerk Mickey Kearns has been pushing so hard for his program to tell people they do not have to move out and to help local governments deal with the notoriously complicated foreclosure process.
The usual image of foreclosure in New York is people moving out when notified, a judge granting the foreclosure and turning over the property to the bank. The county clerk said that is mostly untrue, since a resident does not have to move out until the foreclosure is granted - or "perfected" - and that can take a very long time.
The Clerk Office's new data system is being used to tell towns what is going on and the Western New York Law Center is offering help to residents hit with that foreclosure application. Kearns said the first stage is filing of what is called a lis pendens.
"That's the beginning stage of a lawsuit, and we're trying to work with our elected officials and we're trying to work with our code enforcement officers," Kearns said. "Nearly 20 municipalities have signed up. On a weekly basis, we give them a list, access to a database where they can find out where are the foreclosures beginning."
The new database also provides contact information for the bank and attorney handling the foreclosure.
An unclear number of people unnecessarily leave when the foreclosure starts, leaving the home empty and vulnerable. Kearns said there are foreclosures pending in Erie County for 12 years and some are never perfected, leaving ownership foggy and the building deteriorating into a zombie home. That can also translate into insurance problems for nearby homes.
He said the house needs to be handled quickly to preserve its value.
"That's the best time to come up with a strategy and a game plan to help those people, so we're helping the homeowner to stay within the home, to come up with a strategy, whether it's a short sale or selling the property or coming up with a game plan," Kearns said. "We're helping the neighbors, since now their property values are not going into decline - and remember, if you're living next door to a vacant or abandoned property, there are housing insurance issues."
Kearns said the best information is that there are zombie houses throughout the county and many of the smaller towns do not have the staff to deal with them. He said they can include million-dollar houses in Clarence to deteriorating houses in Buffalo.
One early home he became involved with while on Buffalo's Common Council in the late 1990s was finally sold and the purchasers live there now. Kearns said he wants to see more of that.