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Combating zombie properties: Erie County, WNY Law Center gains significant new partner in Columbia Law School

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Wed, Apr 4th 2018 04:35 pm
Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns provides details on his office's `A.L.E.R.T.` program. (Submitted photo)
Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns provides details on his office's "A.L.E.R.T." program. (Submitted photo)
Kearns, WNY Law Center announce partnership with Columbia Law School; new initiative has students helping smaller municipalities to rid communities of zombie properties
Erie County Clerk Mickey Kearns and the Western New York Law Center on Wednesday announced a groundbreaking new partnership with Columbia Law School to help Erie County municipalities track and monitor zombie foreclosures. Through this partnership, Columbia Law School students will conduct research on vacant and abandoned properties for participating municipalities. The goal of this program is to provide additional resources to smaller municipalities in order to help these communities proactively track foreclosures.
This partnership between the Erie County clerk's office, the WNY Law Center and Columbia Law School is the first of its kind, applying the skillset and knowledge of the law students to provide additional support, resources and information to smaller municipalities otherwise overwhelmed by the complicated process of identifying responsible parties for maintaining vacant properties.
Working with Columbia Law School, municipality officials will be able to submit a request on a vacant property through a website specifically designed for this program. Approved law students will then access data provided through the Erie County clerk's office to conduct research and report back to municipal officials on pending foreclosure information.
Columbia Law students will be able to count the time spent researching for municipalities toward their college's mandatory 40-hour pro bono requirement, which law students must fulfill to graduate.
Volunteer time might also count toward the 50-hour New York state pro bono requirement that must be met by all applicants for admission to practice law in New York.
"This new partnership with Columbia Law School is a substantial step towards riding communities of vacant and abandoned properties," Kearns said. "There is a clear need for resources for our smaller municipalities, many of who want to take action on zombie properties, but don't have the means to do it. Working with the bright students at Columbia Law School will give these municipal leaders the necessary information to track down banks and ensure these properties are being maintained."
"We are pleased to partner in this innovative initiative with Erie County Clerk Michael P. Kearns and the Western New York Law Center with Joseph Kelemen and Kate Lockhart," said Conrad Johnson, clinical professor of law at Columbia University. "Zombie properties are a blighting influence throughout New York. By participating in this program, students at Columbia Law School can make a positive difference while fulfilling their responsibilities to serve the public."
"This project is an excellent example of how collaboration and innovation can solve problems," said Kate Lockhart of the WNY Law Center. "We have matched the needs and skills of the Columbia Law students with the needs of the smaller municipalities, like Boston and Evans, the Erie County clerk's foreclosure data, and the Law Center's expertise to create a project that is beneficial not just to the parties involved, but to our Western New York community as a whole. The Western New York Law Center is proud to work with such forward-thinking partners."
The towns of Boston and Evans will be the first towns to use a pilot version of this program with Columbia Law School.
"Helping families who are facing foreclosure and rehabilitating properties to put them back into productive use improves the quality of life in our community and generates property tax revenue for municipalities," Town of Boston Supervisor Jason A. Keding said. "This program will support municipalities like the Town of Boston as we deal with issues presented by zombie properties. I thank County Clerk Michael Kearns for his ongoing commitment to housing issues faced across Erie County."
Town of Evans Supervisor Mary K. Hosler said, "This partnership will be a great tool in our arsenal to combat blight in our neighborhoods, by giving us more timely information, which will allow us to hold the banks accountable instead of putting the financial burden to maintain these properties on the taxpayers."
On April 17, Kearns and representatives from the WNY Law Center will travel to Columbia Law School to record a training that will be used to certify students to conduct this research and use the clerk's office information.
This partnership is an addition to the clerk's "Neighborhood Foreclosure A.L.E.R.T. Program," which notifies Erie County municipalities when a foreclosure has commenced in one of their neighborhoods.

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