The three houses sit in a row, silent and empty, their windows boarded up and a musty smell wafting through the door on the light afternoon breeze. A notice that reads “This structure is considered unfit for human occupancy” is posted on the front door of one home.
The houses are all located on Isabella Street in Rotterdam Junction, a quiet side street badly damaged in the flooding caused a year ago by tropical storms Irene and Lee. Recently, volunteers from the Flood Recovery Coalition for Schenectady County cleaned out the houses, even though the owners appear unlikely to return. It was a different type of task for the group, whose primary focus is rehabbing homes to make them livable for families displaced by the flood.
But the vacant homes were becoming too big a problem to ignore.
They posed a worsening health and safety hazard, and something needed to be done. Mold and vermin were a growing problem, while thieves had stripped the homes of copper pipes.
Flood Recovery Coalition coordinator Nathan Mandsager said the group expects to wrap up its work by the end of the year, and cleaning out the vacant properties is a way to “leave the community as safe as possible. … We got permission [from the homeowners] to go in and clean them out so that they’re not just rotting.” He estimated that in Schenectady County at least 20 flood-damaged properties have been abandoned, about a dozen of them in Rotterdam Junction.
More than a year after the flood, such vacant houses are becoming a growing concern. But for the volunteer groups coordinating much of the recovery, these houses are not a high priority — their objective is to assist people who intend to move back home.
“The vacant homes have always been on our radar,” Mandsager said. “But our first priority is rebuilding and getting people home. Now these homes are becoming more of an issue. People are saying, ‘What can we do about it?’ There was a big discussion about these homes at our leadership meeting.”
Josh DeBartolo, who coordinates Schoharie Recovery, which focuses on rebuilding homes in the Schoharie Central School District, said about a third of the flood-damaged properties identified by the coalition have had almost no work done to them. Many of these properties are now in foreclosure or for sale, he said.
But DeBartolo said it’s unfair to say that the homeowners had simply thrown up their hands and walked away. Many of them would have liked to have returned home, but received flood insurance settlements they felt were inadequate and couldn’t afford to rebuild. Others have decided to apply to the federal government’s buyout program, which allows people at risk of future flooding to receive a payment in return for leaving their homes. DeBartolo said the buyouts won’t begin until spring, which means that many of these homes will remain vacant for months.
“It’s very rare that a homeowner just left,” DeBartolo said. “It’s more of a situation where they went through the process, and couldn’t get the assistance they needed to return to their home.”
DeBartolo’s main concern is how the vacant homes impact the community, particularly residents who have opted to stay and those who are considering moving there. One of Schoharie Recovery’s goals is preventing population loss; if a family decides to leave, the group would like to see a new family move in. Deteriorating vacant houses could make it more difficult to achieve this goal.
Sarah Goodrich, executive of Schoharie Area Long Term, or SALT, echoed DeBartolo’s concerns, and said that the number of foreclosures on flood-damaged properties appear to be increasing.
“If houses are just abandoned and go into foreclosure, that’s a big financial problem,” she said. “There are houses with locks on their doors from banks. Nobody can go in and do work.”
Goodrich said people have been purchasing flood-damaged properties for rock-bottom prices and just letting them sit there. “There’s no sense of urgency because they bought them for so little,” she said. One person purchased four homes and put two of them back on the market when he discovered that local zoning laws wouldn’t allow him to convert them into boarding houses, she said.
SALT is a nonprofit organization that provides support and resources to the various flood recovery groups, civic organizations and agencies in Schoharie County and the Greene County town of Prattsville, with the goal of making the rebuilding process more efficient and coordinated.
Mandsager said the coalition estimates that there are at least half a dozen vacant properties in the Stockade neighborhood of Schenectady, but the group has no plans to clean them out, mainly because of the neighborhood’s status as a historic district. The Stockade is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and making visible alterations to the exteriors of buildings in the neighborhood requires permission from the city’s Historic District Commission.
The Rev. Valerie Ackerman, head of the Neighborhood Watch program in the Stockade, said neighborhood residents are “very upset” about the vacant properties. “They get moldy and they smell, and they decrease the value of the homes next door,” she said.
Ackerman said residents are particularly concerned about four vacant houses on Ingersoll Avenue and two on North Ferry Street. The ownership situations tend to be nebulous, which makes it harder for volunteers to get the permission needed to do interior work.
For instance, one of the vacant homes is being foreclosed upon by the city, while another has been sold at auction and the new owner has done nothing with the property. “There’s no evidence that the front door as even been opened,” Ackerman said.
“Because of the historic nature of the houses, we’d like these houses to be preserved,” Ackerman said. “But we’re concerned that if this goes on much longer, preservation won’t be possible. We want them to be turned over or purchased by someone who will be responsible.”
Ackerman said many Stockade homeowners are still in the processing of fixing their homes.
“Almost nobody is completely back to normal,” she said. “Every house needs something. Many people are taking the opportunity to make them better than they were before the flood. We’re proud of the owners who have stayed and are taking care of their property.”