By Arthur H. Gunther III
SUBURBIA — The New York State of my lifelong existence ranks among the top 10 nationwide in hosting foreclosing properties — about 15,000 — some of them traced to irresponsible mortgage lending by banks that quickly flipped the notes for sure profit, others to those who never could afford the homes and, sadly, more than enough to people who have lost jobs as the middle class dwindles in the Greed Era. Now many of these homes are abandoned, with no upkeep. Neighbors who take care of their houses are essentially insulted for their effort.
While Albany is considering legislation that would force lenders to recognize their stakeholder role, it should not be necessary to remind them of their responsibility to community appearance. Nor should anyone have to wonder why there is so little enforcement of town and village property upkeep laws, whether the land/house is in foreclosure or not. It all comes down to community pride, without which aging suburbia will continue to deteriorate.
Abandoned properties are not only unsightly, but they attract rodents, break-ins and squatters. Many towns and villages declare, as my local Orangetown community notes in its “Chapter 24c, Property Maintenance Code,” that “Properties which are not adequately maintained and repaired may serve as an attractive nuisance … (they) tend to … detract from the appearance of adjoining properties, which may lead to the progressive deterioration of a neighborhood.” Absolutely, we all have seen that happen.
Such law is fine on paper, but what happens when the law is not enforced? When a homeowner keeps unregistered junk cars in his driveway, when someone leaves litter on his land, when trash and recycling containers are not removed after pickup, when fences are falling down, when gutters are hanging off roofs, when sidewalks are not cleared of snow or are hazardous because tree roots have pushed up the slabs — where is the municipality watchdog? And what about shopping centers where debris is not picked up, the parking lots are shabby and the building facades run down?
These are real conditions in most communities, and it seems the onus is on neighbors to be the bad guy and make a formal complaint. Instead, the municipality should be noting the neglect and notifying property owners to correct.
One way to improve property appearance is by certificate of occupancy renewal whenever a home or business is offered for sale. The community sends out an inspector after a small fee is paid to cover that, and neglect such as poor sidewalks and yard litter are corrected before the property can be listed.
We realize building inspectors are busy enough, but while they are in their cars going about to their jobs, they can jot down the addresses of unkempt property. So can police on routine patrol. For that matter, so can the mayor, the town supervisor, the trustees, council people, any concerned citizen. We all have a financial and quality-of-life stake in how our villages and towns look.
If owners do not correct the neglect, the municipalities should step in and do the work, adding the tab to the annual tax bill. When the property owner cannot afford repairs because of illness, job loss, etc., perhaps community service organizations can lend a hand and take on these properties as projects.
The point is to clean up blighted homes and to enforce the law, not just have it on the books.
Think of your mother, who I hope told you to wash your hands before dinner, to pick up your toys, to not track mud into your house. Well, communities are really homes and businesses held in common by the great expectation of observing standards. There is no room for pigs to spoil it for the rest of us.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.