Zombie House Love Story

38 weeks pregnant with my third son, swollen, and bothered, I acted to rid my neighborhood of an eyesore and hazard. Opportunity never waits for convenience. This cause was no different.

I own a home on the south shore of Long Island, NY. Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, battered the east coast and raised the water levels up to ten feet, flooding homes and streets in coastal towns like mine. 18,000 houses on or near canals had significant damage. First floors flooded to the ceiling and fires and sewage destroyed the rest. Families lost their furniture, their personal photographs, and their property values. Some owners walked away rather than deal with the damage. By 2016, there were approximately 1,600 of these abandoned - also called zombie - homes in our area. Zombie homes were a big problem that no one was talking about.

But this was not the case with our neighbor’s property. The previous owner had a reverse mortgage and it was unclear whether her adult heirs or the bank now held the deed after her death. Regardless, no one was maintaining the property. Our town government seemed overwhelmed with the sheer volume of vacant homes, related to hurricanes or not, and houses like the one on our block were falling into worse and worse disrepair.

"That's it!", my husband announced one evening in March 2016. "That's the final straw." He was talking about the graffiti he discovered on the side of our neighbor's house. The house had been vacant for at least six years. The lawn grew long and wild and the windows were boarded up with wood. The roof was pocketed with holes. There was no question this house was abandoned. It was a hot mess and no one cared.

In contrast we took great pride in our home, which was our first. We saved for 10 years for the down payment and the purchase of our house in 2011 was thrilling. Our house is our life savings and represented a means to finally start a family. We enjoy maintaining a neat lawn and cheerful flowers because we want our house to look as cherished as it really is. An abandoned house at the opening of the block felt like a betrayal to our values and to our neighborhood. We are all in this together, our lives intertwined because of abutting properties but also because we all add up to a community. How could someone walk away so carelessly when ours meant so much to us?

Wilson & Kelling's Broken Windows Theory states that minor vandalism offenses can lead to more serious crimes if not immediately addressed. Disorder will lead to crime, the primary example that if a window in a building is broken and not repaired, then all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. Abandoned homes have cost Long Island at least $295 million in depreciated home values as of 2016. I worried the vandalism of the neighborhood could increase.

My husband had been calling the Town to speak to the Buildings Inspector and was getting the runaround. The Town refused to explain what they could do, what our rights as neighbors were, and the due process for neglected houses.

Two weeks from my due date, I had already began my maternity leave from work. It was late March and I was bored. The baby's room was ready and the car seat installed. The wait for the birth was driving me crazy. To fill the time, I brainstormed with my husband what we could do about the dilapidated house on the block.

I’m a web designer and marketer by profession so I applied my digital skills to create a simple, one-page website. I photographed the vacant house and linked to New York State Senate's pending Abandoned Property Neighborhood Relief Act of 2016 bill. I intended to convey the sad state of abandoned homes at a local and state level. As an afterthought, I added a Jotform online petition to collect signatures in favor of tearing the house down. I bought the domain name for $12 and the website was public within 24 hours. If my concerns were not being heard by the Town I thought I could get their attention by showcasing neighborhood support for action.

I shared the website with my friends on Facebook and asked them to pass it to their friends. The response was quick and passionate. In days the petition received 130 signatures and scores of encouragement for taking action on the house. Located just outside the high school property, other neighbors suspected teenagers were breaking into the unstable structure to use as a hangout. Removing it was viewed not only as fixing an eyesore but also keeping neighborhood kids safe. I felt hopeful for the first time that maybe I could impact change. I didn’t want to complain. I wanted to influence action.

I gave birth to my son and days later got a call from a local journalist who had read the social threads and was writing a story about the online petition. My husband and I gave quotes and the article was published on the front page of the local newspaper. We were thrilled.

Soon after the article was published, a local cable TV channel picked up the story to report on our activism as a part of the larger vacant home crisis on Long Island. The reporter interviewed us on camera in front of the overgrown property. I was still recovering from my son's delivery just the week before so I was relieved when my husband was featured over me. We never thought of ourselves as activists or community organizers but it felt important to represent the neighborhood's concern over the vacant property. We were optimistic. Maybe we could actually drive change.

When the segment aired I found out the reporter had contacted the Town and the Buildings Department had committed to opening a case. Finally! We had requested that for months on our own. Regardless of how, at least action was being taken.

After a two-month review, the Town declared the house structurally unsafe and a hazard. The holes and animal damage were simply too far gone. The inspector recommended full demolition. Three months later at a Town Hall meeting, the demolition order was approved. Then we waited. Eight months passed when one day a single crane appeared. The house was completely leveled in less than a week. Now the property is dirt, grass, and pine trees like a house was never there.

It's heartbreaking to see a house in disrepair, overgrown, and a haven for wild animals. I don't relish property value lost and government demolishing private property. Owning a house creates lasting ties to a community. A family's home is a place where memories are made and where children feel most safe in the world. Decades before that house had been a family's home and later a sanctuary for a nice, elderly lady. It was a shame to see it neglected.

Fourteen months after I published the website and petition, that unsafe structure is gone. The virgin property looks clean and attractive for purchase again. That’s truly what I had hoped, to remove an open target and hazard and to encourage new development and ownership. For now the lot sits like an open invitation for a responsible buyer. The old pine trees that still remain give it charm.

I'm eager for a new family to build a house and cherish this block, just like I do. I'll be the first neighbor to welcome them with a homemade strawberry pie.

Christi Terjesen (1302 words)