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CBS6 Investigates: Zombie Properties

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ALBANY, NY (WRGB) Hundreds of years of history lie within the brick buildings that line so many of the streets in the city of Albany. But how many of those buildings sit unoccupied, some rotting away to the point of no recovery? The number - more than 1,000 - and the job of breathing life back into those is in the hands of city officials.

Many of those buildings exhibit large county landbank signs, and unsightly red x's - marking structurally unsafe buildings.

"It's kind of bittersweet..."

Saretha Sotomayor's Habitat for Humanity home sits in between two vacant properties.

"We go in our backyard and it's kind of an abandoned field back there," Sotomayer said.

It's an issue officials finally seem to be facing, head on.

“The city needed a person whose full time job was tracking and working on the vacant buildings across the city."

Samuel Wells' job is to find vacant buildings.

"We gathered together any list both new and old and essentially had ourselves a master list of properties to go look at."

Wells found 1,044 vacant buildings in the city of Albany at the beginning of this year - up from the 800 recorded in 2012.

"A big reason why a lot of these buildings are the way that they are is because the math just doesn't work out," Wells said.

While many of the buildings have beautiful bones, Wells says they're not worth the money it would take to put back into them - which unfortunately leads to demolition for some.

"We're exploring ways to add tools to let us at get these buildings sooner and hopefully prevent demolition down the line."

We asked for the breakdown - about 60% of properties pay taxes, the other 40% are tax delinquent. Wells and the city work on the ones still paying taxes - those have absentee landlords and are known as zombie properties.

More than 700 buildings last year were cited for code violations for not being registered as vacant.

But the main goal is to return these buildings back to productive use and create homes for families.

"This program is called building blocks."

Funded by the a grant from Attorney General’s office, Building Blocks shows every property in the city. It shows buildings registered as vacant, building owners, police calls to the properties, and code restrictions on them. And it shows properties being rehabbed, like 2 Judson St.

"This is a prominently located and historically significant building..."

Properties in tax foreclosure come out of the city's hands and into those of the Albany County Landbank. It's job -

"To help address the huge scale and scope of vacant properties that are kind of creating a crisis across the state."

Landbank executive director Adam Zaranko says these buildings attract crime, fires, and become homes for squatters and drug use - and many face copper theft. Between 2016 and 2017, roughly 38% of buildings were the source of a police call.

"They’ve been vacant and abandoned for 5,10,15, 20 years or more, sitting in winters, elements are taking their toll on them, and everyday a property isn't maintained, it takes that much more to restore," Zaranko said.

And there are so many, he says, that they've depressed property values.

"It's disheartening, because this is such a beautiful neighborhood, and then you have that one eyesore."

10th Ward Councilman Owusu Anane says he gets calls and emails often from residents about vacant properties.

"It sends the wrong message, it's a quality of life issue."

But he, Wells ,and Zaranko have hope for the rebirth of these buildings.

"In just over four years and we've sold about 230 of those properties, 100 of which are buildings that are going back fully rehabbed."

Wells says the progress is shaping the conversation and policies around the issue - and leading to getting done the job that he signed up for:

"Help bring life to these buildings."

Each official CBS6 spoke with reiterated that none of it is possible without state and county funding.

If you’re interested in rehabbing a building, visit https://www.albanyny.gov/Government/Departments/ACDA/VacantBuildingRehabilitationProgram.aspx for more information.

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