By Andrew Wroblewski
Blighted “zombie homes” could be resurrected and transformed into housing for homeless veterans under a federal bill led by U.S. Rep. Steve Israel.“It is simply unacceptable that our veterans, who have sacrificed so much to defend our country, should ever be forced to sleep on the streets at night,” said Steve Israel (D-Huntington), who proposed the Housing Our Heroes Act on Nov. 5 with U.S. Rep. Thomas Rooney (R-South Florida). The proposal seeks to create a three-year pilot program.
The legislation expands upon the Housing Our Homeless Heroes Act in Suffolk that was authored by Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills). That law allows tax-defaulted properties to be distributed by the county to veterans service organizations that renovate the homes for veterans and their families.
According to a 2014 Department of Housing and Urban Development report to Congress, national veteran homelessness has declined by 33 percent since 2010.
However, there are still an estimated 49,933 homeless veterans on the street on any given night in the United States, including 700 on Long Island, according to figures provided by HUD last year.
Israel added that the legislation would “not only put a roof over our heroes’ heads, it will also transform unsightly zombie homes into renovated properties that will revitalize housing markets in many of our Long Island communities.”
A 2014 Newsday report showed that there were 4,044 “zombie homes” on Long Island, with 2,084 in Suffolk.
If approved, the pilot program would be operated by U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald. A starting appropriation of $25 million would fuel a “Veterans Homelessness Grant Fund,” which McDonald would pull from in order to award grants not exceeding $1 million to veterans’ service organizations, homeless organization and/or non-governmental organizations. Those organizations would then use the grant to purchase abandoned and/or foreclosed homes and convert them into housing for homeless veterans.
No more than $300,000 of an awarded grant would be permitted to be used to purchase a single property. Veterans who live in the housing would make payments, no less than 85 percent of the home’s fair market rent, to the grantee. The grantee would determine whether the payments would be considered rent or a mortgage for the home.
No less than 80 percent of the payments made to the grantee would be given back to the Department of Veterans Affairs and placed into the grant fund.
In a statement, Stern thanked Israel for introducing the federal bill. He called it an “important initiative to not only assist our veterans, but also to improve the quality of life for all of our neighbors.”
A neighbor of a zombie home in Dix Hills, Gina Raio Bitsimis, also thanked Israel “for working to transform these costly eyesores into beautiful homes for our country’s veterans.
“My family and I will welcome these brave men and women into our neighborhood with open arms and look forward to the increase of both our quality of life and the value of our property.”
Huntington Councilwoman Tracey Edwards called zombie homes an “epidemic” that Huntington residents have faced “for far too long.”
“Congressman Israel’s legislation will help improve the quality of life for our veterans and Huntington residents whose home values have been negatively impacted by these eyesores. I look forward to working with him to ensure our residents are taken care of.”
The bill was assigned a congressional committee Nov. 5, which will consider it before potentially passing it on to the House of Representatives or U.S. Senate for further consideration.