Tax Abatement, Zombie House Programs Aim For Improvements

At left, Todd Thomas, city clerk and administrative director, and Vince DeJoy, city development director in front of a zombie house in the city. P-J file photo by Dennis Phillips

Two new programs went online in 2017 that will hopefully help Jamestown officials improve city neighborhoods.

One of the new initiatives was the Local Property Tax Abatement Incentive Redevelopment of Vacant and Condemned Properties program.

The new local law, which was signed in October, will be for single or two-family residential properties that are vacant, legally condemned and have outstanding state and local code violations where the cost of remedying the violations exceeds the property value. Also, the program includes the construction of a new single or two-family residence of at last 1,200 square feet on a parcel where a previous house has been demolished.

The tax abatement will be granted through an application filled out by the owner of the property with the city assessor’s office, which needs to be done before March 1 to qualify for that tax year. The application will include the scope of work, with cost estimates and quotes from contractors, plumbers and electricians who are licensed to do work in the city. The abatement covers 11 years, with zero percent for years one through three; 20 percent for years four and five; 40 percent for years six and seven; 60 percent for years eight and nine; 80 percent for years 10 and 11; and 100 percent starting year 12.1

The idea for the program was suggested by Marie Carrubba, Ward 4 councilwoman, about two years ago after she had heard about a similar program approved in her former hometown of Batavia. Carrubba then reached out to Vince DeJoy, city development director, about creating a program for Jamestown to assist developers in saving abandoned properties or creating new structures on vacant lots.

DeJoy said, as of Wednesday morning, state officials were close to finalizing the form necessary to start the program. He said once the state Department of Taxation and Finance finalizes the form, city officials will be able to start evaluating cases. He added that the first possible case where the new program will be used involves Habitat For Humanity building a new house on a vacant lot created by a demolition along Norton Avenue.

“There was a foreclosed property that suffered water damage due to poor drainage on the site,” he said. “(The Jamestown Urban Renewal Agency) currently owns the property and we are going to do what we can from the city’s perspective to alleviate the water drainage, storm drainage issues. It is a result of topography on the parcel. We’re going to change the topography of the site to drain to the curb instead of having standing water, which destroyed the house.”

DeJoy said city officials won’t be able to fix the drainage issue on the parcel until spring, but once a solution is found, the construction of the new house will start.

“It will likely be the first one to qualify for the program,” DeJoy said.

In October, Sam Teresi, Jamestown mayor, said the new program won’t fix all of the city’s housing problems, but if just three to four houses are renovated annually the city could save more than $100,000 because the average cost to demolish a property is between $30,000 and $40,000. He said the biggest benefit will be for city neighborhoods who will no longer have to deal with a blighted house on the block.

Another housing initiative helping to improve city neighborhoods is the Zombie and Vacant Properties Remediation and Prevention Initiative program. Zombie properties are houses that are vacant and abandoned that are not maintained during a prolonged foreclosure proceeding.

In October 2016, city officials were approved for the program and received $149,970 in funding. The money for the Zombie Remediation and Prevention Initiative program will address housing vacancy and blight by bolstering municipalities’ capacity for housing code enforcement, for tracking and monitoring vacant properties and for legal enforcement capacity to ensure banks and mortgage companies comply with local and state law. The grants also require communities to develop innovative programs and policies and connect at-risk homeowners to services so they can avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes.

The primary use for the state grant is to hire an attorney, which city officials did when they hired Todd Thomas to be an independent contracted lawyer. However, after Thomas was appointed to be the city clerk and administrative director in August, DeJoy said they hired Kristy Woodfield to be the attorney working on behalf of the city when it comes to zombie properties.

“She has been extremely aggressive working with banks and going after mortgage companies holding properties that aren’t being maintained,” he said. “Because of litigation, I cannot discuss specific properties. However, she has filed a number of motions.”

DeJoy said one of the cases Woodfield is working on might be the first to take advantage of a state law.

“It is a legal procedure for the city to take title to a property,” he said. “It is a long process, but we may see some fruits from it this spring.”

Once the city takes control, DeJoy said the Jamestown Urban Renewal Agency can then market it as a development property.

“We feel the property is very marketable and will dramatically change a neighborhood,” he said. “It has been a zombie in a stable, good neighborhood. Whoever takes on the property will have a great opportunity to have a good house, with good bones. We’re going through the legal process and hope to have something to report on in the next couple of months about how we were successful using a law on the books that no one has used.”

If someone suspects a property to be a zombie house or believes there are housing code violation, contact the city’s Development Department by calling 483-7542.