Condemned house an eyesore still standing in Bethlehem
Feb. 11--BETHLEHEM -- Fire destroyed the house late in 2012, and the Bethlehem building inspector condemned it the very next day.
But the house at 46 Monroe Ave. is still standing 14 months later -- charred ugliness amid the single-family homes of North Bethlehem. Neighbors are understandably tired of looking at the eyesore. They feel burned.
"Every night when we come home, that house is staring us in the face," said Ken Hahn, whose home is two doors away from the partially blackened wreck.
So what gives? Why is the house still standing?
One word: foreclosure.
The house was already vacant when it burned on the night before Thanksgiving. And in the months that followed, it wasn't clear who, exactly, owned the home as foreclosure proceedings slowly progressed.
The most recent owner, Luis Gonzalez, lives now in Florida, where I reached him by telephone. He said he had given up on the property and therefore assumed that the lender, Texas-based Caliber Home Loans, would take care of demolition after the fire.
But that never happened.
In fact, nothing at all happened for months and months, according to neighbors. The burned house wasn't even boarded over.
That kind of limbo isn't unusual with foreclosures. Lenders often refuse to spend on upkeep on abandoned homes until they fully assume ownership -- even for properties that haven't been destroyed by fire. In some cases, banks allow even livable homes to fall into disrepair.
I started working on this column on Saturday. By coincidence, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on Monday called for changes to state law that would hold lenders responsible for the upkeep of properties soon after they're abandoned. He also proposed a statewide database designed to help cities and towns track ownership of abandoned properties.
"Every New Yorker deserves to live in a neighborhood where the house next door isn't left to rot," Schneiderman said.
Neighbors of the Monroe Avenue house would certainly agree.
There, nothing happened to the charred house until one neighbor, David Cleveland, wrote to the town to warn that he'd seen children playing in the dark and dangerous house.
That prompted Bethlehem officials to at least board over the bottom floor -- but the house remained standing.
"We're all frustrated with looking at it," Cleveland told me. "Everybody here feels that way."
Monroe Avenue, which links the Woodscape subdivision to Russell Road, is in a quiet and largely hidden section of town, a neighborhood tucked away where the borders of Albany, Guilderland and Bethlehem meet.
"The general feeling is that if the house was in Delmar it would have been taken care of six months ago," Hahn said. "But because it's out of sight and out of mind, it's been allowed to linger."
It certainly seems as though Bethlehem officials could have taken more aggressive action on the house. After all, town ordinance allows officials to order the demolition of unsafe properties.
But Justin Harbinger, the acting building inspector, said questions about who owned the house stalled town action.
"Tracking down somebody who was responsible for the building was the biggest hurdle for the longest time," Harbinger said.
By last fall, the town was considering using taxpayer money to raze the house, but then an odd thing happened: Gonzalez reasserted his ownership of the property.
Gonzalez told me that the lender signed the property over to him after using fire insurance money to pay off his debt. Caliber Home Loans declined to comment.
"Now that I know that I own the house, we're working to get it down as soon as possible," Gonzalez said. "We could have had the house down two months ago if they didn't find asbestos."
Oh, yes -- asbestos. Its discovery was the most recent hurdle, requiring an abatement plan before demolition could occur.
That plan is now in place, and the town is expected to issue a demolition permit any day. Harbinger, in fact, said he's hoping to see 46 Monroe Ave. wiped clean by month's end.
Gonzalez wasn't sure of his long-term plan for the property. He said he might sell the land to a developer -- or keep it for his own use. "I'm thinking of moving back to New York," he said. "I might build a house there."
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