Government Operations and Community Development

Taking Title to Abandoned Properties

The Mandate: As if the economic challenges facing New York's communities weren't already great enough, the "Great Recession" has further strained local economies that were already under tremendous pressure. The decline in jobs and population, particularly in upstate New York, over the past four decades has left many communities with depressed housing markets. This has resulted in a high rate of rental, vacant, and abandoned properties that depress surrounding property values, require a disproportionate focus of municipal resources, and generally inhibit sound economic and community growth. The responsibility of dealing with the negative effects of vacant and abandoned properties falls primarily to the local governments in which those properties are located. Unfortunately, State law does not adequately allow municipalities to promptly deal with abandoned property.

Vacant properties -- that is those properties without an occupant but where the property owner is active in the property's maintenance and upkeep, or is at least capable of being located by municipal officials -- have significant negative consequences on their surrounding communities. Abandoned properties are those where the responsible party, who should be held accountable for property maintenance violations and unpaid property bills and taxes, cannot be located. Abandoned properties present much more serious problems for local government officials.

It is difficult enough for local government officials to deal with vacant and neglected properties. When a property is also abandoned, local government officials must first make sure that the property does not present an immediate threat to the public's health, safety, and welfare. If a property does present an imminent danger to the public, then the municipality may take steps to eliminate the danger, often at a cost to local taxpayers. Once it is determined that there is no danger present, or such danger has been eliminated, then local governments must focus on returning the property to the hands of a responsible property owner. However, the first challenge of getting abandoned property into the hands of responsible property owners is to acquire clear title to the property.

The Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law allows municipalities to take title to residential dwellings that are abandoned in their jurisdiction. However, municipalities are not permitted to take title to all abandoned real property, including commercial real property that has been abandoned. As a result, thousands of abandoned properties in New York continue to blight the communities in which they are located.

The Cost: With municipalities unable to take title to abandoned commercial properties, the property remains vacant, thereby contributing to blight in the surrounding communities. This decreases property values (which in turn affects property tax revenues), puts a strain on local government resources, and generally inhibits the community and economic health of the area. While there are no hard figures about the cost that abandoned properties place upon New York's communities, many studies have been conducted across the country that illustrate the serious consequences of not addressing abandoned properties:

· A study of Austin, Texas concluded that neighborhoods with unsecured vacant buildings had over three times as many drug calls, almost twice as many theft calls, and twice the number of violent calls to police as neighborhoods without vacant buildings;1

· Every year, there are more than 12,000 fires, most intentionally set, in vacant structures, resulting in $73 million in property damage;2

· Over the past five years, St. Louis has spent $15.5 million, or nearly $100 per household, to demolish vacant buildings;3

· Detroit spends $800,000 per year4 and Philadelphia spends $1,846,745 per year cleaning vacant lots;5 and

· A 2001 study in Philadelphia found that houses within 150 feet of a vacant or abandoned property experienced an average net loss of $7,627 in value.6

The Solution: Amend the Real Property Actions and Proceedings Law to permit municipalities to take title to all abandoned real property, including commercial property. This would allow municipalities to quickly and effectively address the negative effects abandoned properties have on the surrounding community.  In addition, amend the procedure for completeing the abandonment process to streamline the notice requirement while at the same time protecting property owners' rights.   Finally, amend the Real Property Tax Law to shorten the redemption period for tax deliquent abandoned property to one year so that the abandoned property do not sit for long periods of time blighting the surrounding community while falling into further disrepair.  Legislation has been introduced that amend the RPAPL (A.7355 (McDonald)) and the RPTL (A. 2490 (McDonald)/S. 175 (MArchione)) effectuate these changes.

1. William Spelman, "Abandoned Buildings: Magnets for Crime?" Journal of Criminal Justice 21.5 (1993): 481, cited in Vacant Properties: The True Costs to Communities, National Vacant Properties Campaign, August 2005 (
2. "New Tool Ready to Combat Arson: Vacant and Abandoned Buildings Targeted," American Re, 16 June 2003 , cited in Vacant Properties: The True Costs to Communities, supra.
3. Jodi Wilgoren, "Urban Renewal Without the Renewal," The New York Times, 7 July 2002, cited in Vacant Properties: The True Costs to Communities, supra.
4. Id.
5. Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, "Vacant Land Management in Philadelphia Neighborhoods: Cost Benefit Analysis," Philadelphia, 1999: 17, cited in Vacant Properties: The True Costs to Communities, supra.
6. Temple University Center for Public Policy and Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project, "Blight Free Philadelphia: A Public-Private Strategy to Create and Enhance Neighborhood Value," Philadelphia, 2001, cited in Vacant Properties: The True Costs to Communities, supra.