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Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, reads over the committee substitute for Senate Bill 42 during the Senate Economic Development Committee meeting Wednesday, Feb. 17, in Charleston.

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate is hoping to put a stop to a decrepit and dangerous blight slowly taking over the state — zombie properties.

Senate Bill 42, the Zombie Property Reclamation Act of 2021, as amended by the Senate Economic Development Committee, establishes a process for municipalities and counties to force foreclosure of dilapidated and unsafe buildings through the court system. A “zombie property” is a property that has been abandoned by an owner after defaulting on the mortgage.

“’Zombie properties’ is used around the country,” said bill sponsor Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell. “I wasn’t just being creative. Other states use this process, and I tried to take the best parts from other states for this bill.”

The bipartisan bill will allow municipalities and counties to begin court proceedings to force foreclosure to either begin or continue along if the property in question is deemed “unsafe, unsanitary, dangerous or detrimental to the public safety or welfare.”

To be deemed unsafe, the municipality must show the court they have inspected the property on three separate occasions within 25-30 days between visits. Each visit must show no occupant was present and there was no evidence of an occupant and the property was not being maintained to not be in violation of fire or building codes.

A property will be considered vacant if a court or other appropriate state or local governmental entity has formally determined, following due notice to the borrower at the property address and any other known addresses, that the residential real property is vacant and abandoned. It can also be deemed vacant if each borrower and owner has separately issued a sworn written statement expressing their intent to vacate and abandon the property and an inspection of the property shows no evidence of occupancy.

Evidence of lack of occupancy includes overgrown or dead vegetation; accumulation of newspapers, circulars, flyers or mail; past-due utility notices, disconnected utilities or utilities not in use; accumulation of trash, refuse or other debris; absence of window coverings such as curtains, blinds or shutters; one or more boarded, missing or broken windows; the property is open to casual entry or trespass; or the property has a building or structure that is or appears structurally unsound or has any other condition that presents a potential hazard or danger to the safety of people.

A property may not be considered vacant and abandoned if there is on the property an unoccupied building that is undergoing construction, renovation or rehabilitation that is proceeding diligently to completion; a building occupied on a seasonal basis, but otherwise secure; a building that is secure, but is the subject of a probate action, action to quiet title or other ownership dispute of which the servicer has actual notice; a building damaged by a natural disaster and one or more owner intends to repair and reoccupy the property; or a building occupied by the mortgagor, a relative of the mortgagor or a tenant lawfully in possession.

Woelfel said this bill fills a hole in the toolbox for dealing with dilapidated housing and will allow places like Huntington to improve their neighborhoods by providing more green space and increased property values.

“Huntington really will hit the ground running with this,” Woelfel said. “We will lead the state.”

The Democratic minority whip said he was pleased with the committee process, which revealed to him this was not just an urban problem but also a rural one. He said it’s highly unusual for a minority-sponsored bill to be picked up this early in the session.

“That probably hasn’t happened in 100 years,” he said. “But that’s how we do it here.”

Economic Development committee chair Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, said the bill pairs with a bill he plans to reintroduce to create a statewide program to deal with dilapidated housing.

Senate Bill 265, which died in the House last session, would have created a program within the Department of Environmental Protection to assist counties and municipalities with reclaiming unsafe and dilapidated housing. It would have created a fund just for this purpose.

This year, Swope said he is adding to the bill to allow other state agencies including cities and counties to do their own programs.

“There are two federal agencies now that have funding available, and the same economic conditions that created the problem in the first place means cities and counties don’t have the money to do it,” Swope said.

His bill sets up the program but doesn’t define how cities and counties can deal with the housing. SB 42 provides that guidance.

SB 42 now goes to the Senate floor for passage.

Reporter Taylor Stuck can be reached at tstuck@hdmediallc.com. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

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