THE BLOG
11/24/2013 06:15 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2014

Confronting the Zombie Next Door

Zombies are a frightening problem -- and they may be in your town right now.

"Zombie" homes are a plague affecting municipalities around the country -- tying up resources and decreasing nearby property values.

The term -- used to denote homes abandoned by their owners and by banks, who refused to maintain them because they haven't been foreclosed upon yet -- is common in the real estate industry.

New York State, for instance, has 9,100 zombie homes, according to Realty Trac, a real estate research firm.

The results are not pretty as squatters and wild animals can take over a house and create uninhabitable conditions

Neighbors, who have made all their mortgage payments and played by the book, suffer unnecessarily as their property values decrease because of the vacant homes nearby.

Localities, trying to turn the corner on the Great Recession, are stuck with a "broken windows" scenario.

And in true zombie form, the disease is infectious. If one neighbor is willing to walk away from a home, what is to stop a neighbor in similar circumstances from doing the same?

For local governments, early intervention is the key to stopping the epidemic before it overruns the town.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is utilizing a little-known Land Bank program passed by the state legislature in 2011 to give municipalities and certain non-profits in the ability to acquire and/or rehabilitate abandoned homes in order to bring them back on the tax roll.

The law was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to help clean up areas such as the City of Buffalo which has demolished more than 4,796 abandoned buildings since 2006. This is critical for a rust-belt city like Buffalo, which is trying to reinvent itself and ranks third in nation for abandoned homes behind Detroit and New Orleans.

Where did the money come from? As part of the National Mortgage Settlement made between the state attorneys general and the big banks for their part in the 2008 mortgage collapse, a fund of $51 billion was set up to help homeowners facing foreclosure. Of those funds, $2.5 billion was earmarked for states to distribute as they saw fit.

The most creative approach to slaying the "zombies" came from Schneiderman, who was an instrumental force in negotiating the $51 billion settlement with the banks. Instead of just taking the money and putting into the abyss also known as the state's general fund he sought to put the cash to work for those that needed it the most. The Attorney General allocated $60 million of the state's $135 million share and created a competitive grant program aimed at state authorized land banks that were engaged in providing foreclosure prevention services and home rehabilitation.

So far according to numbers released by the Attorney General's office more than 20,000 homeowners were assisted and more than one quarter of those successfully modified their loans. The state reported that 8,012 households were assisted in New York City and another 7,719 homeowners on Long Island and the Hudson Valley.

The Land Bank phenomenon is catching on in other parts of the country as well.

Philadelphia is close to creating a land bank that would tackle urban blight and administer more than 10,000 abandon properties and houses owned by the city.

The Philadelphia plan is widely embraced by residents, developers and religious leaders, according to Newswork, a local news site.

This will allow local officials to strategically redevelop portions of the city and rejuvenate neighborhoods.

Zombies have become of a national obsession with so many movies and television shows devoted to the subject. The National Center for Disease Control even released a tongue-in-cheek zombie awareness bulletin.

One of the best ways to stop the very real zombies in our towns and counteract blight is with land banks.

Unfortunately, Hollywood isn't likely to make a movie about it.