Mount Vernon takes the fight to “zombie” homes with BuildingBlocks
Mount Vernon had no single source of data to quantify or proactively identify distressed and Zombie homes. Using BuildingBlocks, the city was able to proactively identify and catalog the problem properties.
Armed with a data driven approach, the City was able to formulate strategies for bringing these properties back to productive use.
The Owner Profile tool, unique to BuildingBlocks, enabled the City to to identify and curb bad actors who regularly do poor or un-permitted renovation work.
Like many communities across the country, the City of Mount Vernon, NY, was hit hard by the housing and financial crisis of the late 2000’s. Bank-owned foreclosures, properties abandoned by homeowners, and “zombie” homes vacated in the middle of the foreclosure process all took a toll on the City as they deteriorated, dis-proportionally affect its lowest income neighborhoods. A study by New York State Senators Jeff Klein and Jamaal Bailey estimated that bank-owned, abandoned, and “zombie” homes wiped out millions in property values in the City of just under 70,000 people.
Hans Marshalleck worked for the City for 24 years before he was appointed to coordinate Mount Vernon’s cross-departmental strategy to fight distressed and “zombie” homes. He has a natural affinity for data and a background in information technology. Upon assuming the new role, he set out to catalog the “zombie” homes and to identify strategies for bringing them back to productive use.
Because the City lacked a comprehensive list of vacant and abandoned properties, Hans didn’t even have a starting point for his work. But he had a hypothesis as to where he should look first “We have more fires than any city in Westchester county, and we suspect some people are taking advantage of fires to lower their assessment so they can squat on the houses with reduced tax burden,” Marshalleck explained. Hans turned to the BuildingBlocks application, which brings together data from across city departments into a single, web-based dashboard. He was able to quickly generate a preliminary target list of properties with a fire incident, no subsequent building permits pulled for rehabilitation, and an open code enforcement case.
But as Hans worked his way through probable vacants and zombies, more than a dozen of them previously owned by a single bank appeared to have been recently renovated. Checking the sales and ownership data in BuildingBlocks, he found that they were recently sold to a laundry list of seemingly unaffiliated limited liability corporations (LLC’s) registered outside the City. And that is potentially a problem, according to Marshalleck: “If people are buying up these properties, we want good actors, people who are going to do a proper renovation, people who have the means to finish the work.” But the shadowy world of corporate registries and real estate ownership made it difficult for him to identify who exactly was buying up properties in Mount Vernon when all he had was a list of LLC’s.
“In the best case, this kind of research for a single owner would have taken me days without BuildingBlocks. Worst case, it’s just impossible,”
Marshalleck turned to the Owner Profile tool in the BuildingBlocks application to investigate who was acquiring bank-foreclosed properties in his City. The Owner Profile consolidates the full history of all properties owned by a given entity from across the City’s departmental systems, including any outstanding taxes, code violations, permits, and public safety incidents. It also scans multiple data sources to suggest potentially affiliated owners based on shared registered mailing addresses, similar registered names, or common utility billing information. In a few clicks, Hans could quickly see that one buyer, ABC Developers LLC, had the same registered mailing address as ABC Developers I LLC, ABC Builders LLC, and a handful of other corporate entities that had acquired 16 foreclosed properties owned by the same bank. He linked the owners under a common entity within BuildingBlocks to get a complete snapshot of the owner’s footprint within the City and was able to quickly discover that the owner had been cited numerous times for performing rehabilitations without a permit.
With this pattern of behavior identified, the City’s inspectional services team closely monitors these properties to ensure compliance. And the impact goes far beyond just making sure one owner stays in-line. “Like a lot of other communities, we need to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing, and we want to know if someone is going to flip a property into a group home without us knowing about it. Now we have a tool to identify bad actors and anticipate problems before they happen.”