The blight of zombie foreclosures has impacted municipalities throughout Erie County and across New York State for several years. When current Erie County Clerk Michael P. “Mickey” Kearns was the South District member of the Buffalo Common Council, he began fighting the zombie foreclosures issue. When Clerk Kearns became the 142nd District Representative in the New York State Assembly, he brought this fight to Albany and was instrumental in the passage of the 2016 Zombie Property and Foreclosure Prevention Law (“Zombie Property Law.”) As the Erie County Clerk since 2017, resolving the issue of vacant and abandoned zombie homes throughout the County has become a top priority in his office.
Due to the severity of this issue, the New York State Attorney General began allocating funds to selected municipalities with high concentrations of zombie foreclosures. The 2019 grant initiative was called Zombie 2.0. While this was a great step forward, zombie foreclosures persist in smaller communities that were ineligible to apply for Zombie 2.0 grants. Recognizing the need to assist these communities, Clerk Kearns issued a Request for Proposal on March 6, 2019, and the Western New York Law Center (“WNYLC”) was selected by a reviewing committee to be the vendor to provide for zombie property outreach services. On April 18, 2019, the Erie County Legislature approved Comm. 7E-29 authorizing Erie County to allocate $200,000 and enter into a contract with the WNYLC.
What is the Erie County Clerk’s Zombies Initiative?
The Erie County Clerk’s ZOMBIES Initiative is a collaboration between the Office of Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns and the Western New York Law Center. The main goal and purpose of this collaboration is to provide resources to Erie County municipalities and communities facing zombie foreclosures.
The ZOMBIES Initiative Team
Michael P. “Mickey” Kearns, Erie County Clerk (he/him). As Erie County Clerk, and a former Buffalo Common Council Member and former New York State Assemblyman, he has strongly advocated for policies to improve the quality of neighborhoods and fight blight in our communities. In response to constituent complaints, Clerk Kearns has pushed to hold banks accountable for abandoned foreclosures and allowing properties to fall into disrepair. After years of persistent efforts through the zombie property “Shame Campaign,” he was instrumental in the New York State Legislature passing the Zombie Property Law. As Erie County Clerk, he has made this issue a top priority in his office. Working with WNYLC, a first of its kind partnership in New York State was created with the Columbia Law School to assist municipalities in the county with zombie foreclosure issues. He also was instrumental in working with the Erie County Legislature to create and fund the Erie County Clerk’s ZOMBIES Initiative through WNYLC.
Kate Lockhart, Vacant and Abandoned Property Program Director (she/her). After graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science in 2009, Kate moved to Buffalo for an AmeriCorps VISTA position with WNYLC. She has held several positions including Paralegal and Data Manager, focusing on foreclosures and vacant and abandoned properties. Currently as WNYLC’s Vacant and Abandoned Property Program Director, Kate tracks and analyzes data relating to foreclosure filings as well as incomplete or “Zombie” foreclosures in Erie and Niagara County. She collaborates with municipalities in and around Erie County to identify and implement solutions for vacant and abandoned properties and gives presentation on incomplete or “Zombie” Foreclosures across the state. Additionally, Kate is the Chair of the Distressed Properties Task Force, a collaboration of local not for profits, government entities, community groups, and local officials, organized by WNYLC, that meet to discuss the issues and solutions for vacant and abandoned properties in the City of Buffalo.
Samantha R. Axberg, Esq., Managing Attorney, Vacant and Abandoned Properties (she/her). Samantha started working at WNYLC in 2018 as an AmeriCorps Economic Development Corps fellow and was brought on as an attorney in the Vacant and Abandoned Program in 2019. Her responsibilities include working with municipalities to enforce NY mortgage servicer maintenance obligations, solving issues concerning vacant and abandoned properties, legislative advocacy in vacancy and foreclosure defense, and estate planning. Sam chairs the City of Buffalo Distressed Properties Task Force and New Yorkers for Responsible Lending’s Mortgage Working Group. She earned both her BA in Environmental Design and her Juris Doctor from the University at Buffalo.
Jean Blizzard, Paralegal and Community Engagement Specialist (they/them). With their experience in real estate title work and passion for helping their community, Jean proved to be a perfect fit for the Vacant and Abandoned Program. Jean’s responsibilities include client intake and communication, community outreach, matching homeowners in need with local home repair programs, researching vacant and abandoned properties, and more. Jean holds an MA in Forensic Linguistics from Hofstra University and a BA in Linguistics with a Korean Minor from the University at Buffalo, and studied abroad in Korea.
Michael J. Billoni, Zombies Foreclosure Communication Liaison (he/him). Michael has spent more than 40 years in the communication business in Western New York. He began his career as a sports reporter for the Tonawanda News, Buffalo Courier-Express and Rochester Democrat & Chronicle before joining the Buffalo Bisons in 1983 when it was purchased by Bob Rich Jr. and Rich Products Corp. He served as its Director of Publicity, Promotions and Marketing before becoming Vice President and General Manager until he retired in 1996 because of complications from a near fatal bicycle accident. He has been inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame and in 1992 was named by Baseball America as one of the Nine Most Influential Men in Baseball. He began his Billoni Associates communication company in 2000 and along with public relations projects, he has authored one book and published two others. He earned a degree in Journalism from SUNY at Morrisville.
What is The Erie County Zombie Foreclosure Task Force?
The Erie County Zombie Foreclosure Task Force, founded by County Clerk Kearns and the Western New York Law Center, was created in response to the zombie foreclosure crisis in Erie County. The Task Force is made up of municipalities, banks, realtors, nonprofits, and other community leaders. The mission of the Task Force is to share ideas among key stakeholders, distribute strategies with proven results, identify obstacles, and create new ways of dealing with zombie properties. With the support and data from the County Clerk’s Office, the Task Force is able to identify those at risk for foreclosure sooner so that efforts can be made to prevent zombie properties. The Task Force meets quarterly.