ALBANY, N.Y. — Richard Slaper bought his home in a Buffalo suburb in 2003 but fell behind on his payments a few years later following a long hospitalization that kept him from working.
After a foreclosure notice arrived in 2009, followed by unsuccessful attempts to rework his loan, Slaper moved out, taking a job that came with a place to stay.
His property joined the inventory of some 15,000 abandoned homes trapped in a legal limbo that threatens not only those affected but entire neighborhoods.
Labeled "zombie homes," the properties are no longer under control of their owners with pending foreclosure, but not yet under control of a bank or lender.
"I didn't know when they would show up with an eviction notice," Slaper said of his decision to leave. "The house was completely abandoned. It decayed. Vagrants came in and have a couple of parties."
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said his office gets complaints, especially from firefighters who say the homes are a hazard.
"You have communities that are on the edge of the foreclosure crisis, with five or 10 abandoned houses," said Schneiderman. "That hurts the tax base, forcing neighbors to pay more taxes. It lowers the property values, too. And then the neighborhood is in trouble."
Eventually, a legal advocacy group helped Slaper modify his mortgage and he moved back in.
"My story had a happy ending," Slaper said.
But zombie homes are a problem throughout the U.S. as communities deal with the fallout from the housing crisis, with one estimate suggesting that one in five houses facing foreclosure are vacant. They are unwelcome additions to the properties that have gone unsold, unoccupied and unneeded as city populations have declined over decades of demographic and economic change.
The problem is worse in states where foreclosures take the longest. Nationally, the foreclosure process averages about 400 days. In New York, the average is more than 800 days.
Solving the problem requires more programs designed to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, Schneiderman said. He's also backed the idea of letting communities create land banks to buy, refurbish and resell abandoned homes, and has proposed legislation that would require lenders to maintain a property that's been abandoned after the start of a foreclosure.
Without regular maintenance, pipes burst, wood rots, weeds sprout and mold grows. Nearby property values fall, and whole neighborhoods succumb to blight.
Benito Colaiacovo could practically see the value of his pristine home drop off as the house next door, with its faded paint and broken windows, sat vacant, weeds sprouting through the driveway and throughout the backyard.
"It was an eyesore. It needed an overhaul," Colaiacovo said, relieved to be speaking in the past tense.
After passing through the Chautauqua County Land Bank to a developer and new owner, the once run-down house now rivals or eclipses others on the leafy Dunkirk street.
"Studies have shown that they (abandoned homes) have a dramatic negative impact on property values for the seven homes in the surrounding vicinity, but also less dramatic but still notable for homes in a several block radius," said Katelyn Wright, executive director of the Greater Syracuse Land Bank.
Since its formation in 2012, the Syracuse bank has become a clearinghouse as the central New York city deals with about 1,800 vacant structures and addresses a backlog of tax-delinquent properties. The city averages 50 foreclosures a month.
The land bank buys many of the homes for the $151 price of the foreclosure fee, using state, city and county funding, and then ushers them through rehabilitation or, if necessary, demolition.
But no program is likely to reverse the historic shifts in former manufacturing cities, like Amsterdam. Once one of the nation's leading carpet and rug manufacturers, Amsterdam's population is now 18,000, down from 34,000 in 1920. Buffalo's population of 260,000 is less than half what it was in 1950.
Even before the modern foreclosure crisis, Buffalo was working toward a goal of tearing down 5,000 long-vacant homes over five years.
A land bank in Amsterdam, about 35 miles outside of Albany, is close to completing renovations on its first home, a formerly vacant dwelling in a modest but handsome post-war neighborhood. The land bank could have picked a more blighted part of town, but Robert Purtell, a local real estate agent who sits on the bank board, said focusing on one troubled property in an otherwise healthy neighborhood might make more of an impact.
"This home would have affected that house," he said, pointing across the street. "And that house. And that one. Here, we could make a real difference in terms of stabilizing the neighborhood."
Thompson contributed from Dunkirk.