From the South Jersey Times:
Owing to its ongoing high rate of residential foreclosures, New Jersey has become known the Land of the Zombie Houses. If a just-filed lawsuit succeeds, the zombie fighters — our towns and counties — will find it much tougher to fend off the attack.
And it’s a horrible idea to let the zombie enablers win.
Those enablers include investors who snap up vacant housing stock at tax and mortgage default sales, hoping to make a killing by flipping the properties. Of course, that’s a perfectly legitimate, even desirable, way, to get the homes occupied and paying property taxes on time.
But a group of lien buyers want to overturn vacant-property registry ordinances enacted by towns fed up with owner-unoccupied homes for which no one seems to be responsible. Gloucester County set up a novel countywide program to help its towns to establish these registries in 2015. The county should be applauded for helping towns know who is responsible for maintenance and security while these properties sit idle in foreclosure limbo. Instead, four of the towns — Deptford, Glassboro, Monroe and Paulsboro — are targeted by the litigation.
We’ll concede that we don’t know enough about New Jersey foreclosure and tax-sale law to say that the investors who filed the litigation don’t have a valid point or two. They claim in Superior Court, Gloucester County, that the fees are excessive and conflict with existing law that supposedly outlines all charges connected with buying tax lien certificates. Many zombie homes, though, are still owned by banks and mortgage lenders, who are not subject to the certificate redemption fees.
What’s most alarming is the suit’s claim that registration programs are themselves unconstitutional because the state Legislature has not enacted strict parameters for them. The programs involve mainly information that is public — that is, property ownership records — but this information often changes too fast for public databases to keep up.
Any mayor with a boarded-up housing problem can tell you that it can take just a few summertime weeks for insect-harboring weeds to grow to alarming heights or for illness-generating mold to overtake walls. A couple of cold winter nights could entice squatters into empty, inadequately secured homes.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities maintains that towns have the constitutional right to create vacant property registration ordinances. The league should take the lead in defending the towns. Meanwhile, the Gloucester County municipalities that were sued can bolster their case with real-world examples showing that the programs work — and have enabled a rapid defense against eyesores, rodent infestations, fires, drug dens and general neighborhood blight.