Clinic Attacks Zombies

Columbia Law School Clinic Joins Erie County and the Western New York Law Center to Combat Zombie Properties

Students help stabilize communities, protect homeowners and create pro bono opportunities.

The following guest post has been authored and contributed by Columbia Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic.

In 2016, New York State Gov. Cuomo enacted sweeping legislation known colloquially as the “Zombie Property Law.” The legislation was designed to combat the blight of vacant and abandoned “zombie” properties by requiring banks and mortgage servicers to properly maintain these properties. Thousands of such properties exist across the State and create fire, health and safety hazards, while bringing down neighboring property values.

Columbia Law School’s Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic has joined with Erie County and the Western New York Law Center to help Erie County municipalities track and monitor “zombie” foreclosures – vacant, deteriorated homes that were abandoned by their owners in the face of foreclosure threats. Through this first-of-its-kind partnership, clinic students created and maintain a website that allows student volunteers to conduct online research on these properties for participating municipalities and track down the bank or servicing agents who should be held accountable under the new law.

“We are pleased to partner in this innovative initiative with Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns and the Western New York Law Center (WNYLC) with Joseph Kelemen, Kate Lockhart and Sam Axberg,” said Conrad Johnson, clinical professor of law who co-directs the Clinic with Prof. Mary Zulack and Brian Donnelly. “Zombie properties are a blighting influence throughout New York. By participating in this program students at Columbia Law School can use their considerable skills to make a positive difference while fulfilling their responsibilities to serve the public.”

Working with Columbia Law School, municipality officials have submitted requests on vacant properties through the student-designed web program. Law student volunteers then access online data provided through the Erie County Clerk’s Office and conduct research that will help identify those responsible for maintaining these properties after the homeowners have been forced out. Students’ time spent on the project can be used to fulfill Columbia’s mandatory 40-hour pro bono requirement and should qualify in meeting the 50-hour New York Bar pro-bono requirement. To date, more than 50 Columbia Law students have signed up to participate in the project and have investigated over 285 properties.

“This…partnership with Columbia Law School is a substantial step towards ridding communities of vacant and abandoned properties,” said Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns. “There is a clear need for resources for smaller municipalities that want to take action on zombie properties but don’t have the means to do it. Working with the bright students at Columbia Law School will give these municipal leaders the necessary information to track down banks and ensure these properties are being maintained.”

The website also includes information to help foreclosed-upon homeowners in Erie County to recover surplus monies that remain from tax foreclosure sales. These funds belong to the former homeowners. Remarkably, when foreclosed-upon homes are sold for a surplus municipalities have no requirement to notify former homeowners that these surpluses are legally theirs. The clinic website alerts homeowners that money may be available to them, details the information they need to collect the money, and connects them with free legal assistance through WNYLC who may be able to assist them. The initiative aims to reach and help people who deserve surplus funds: those who may need the money most.

The Zombie Properties and Tax Surplus project allows law students to contribute meaningful pro bono services remotely, while completing requirements for graduation and admission to the bar. It also serves as an example of how access to data can serve the public good. Beyond aiding enforcement, this initiative works in tandem with efforts by county officials and the WNYLC to make homeowners facing foreclosure aware that free legal help is available through the Center. Studies have shown that homeowners who obtain legal assistance are 10x more likely to negotiate more favorable terms that allow them to remain in their homes and communities.

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