Bank-Owned Homes Left Abandoned After Sandy Pose Health Threat: Neighbors
NEPONSIT — Dozens of bank-owned homes left to rot after Hurricane Sandy are posing a health hazard to neighbors — but a tangle of red tape is preventing locals from convincing anyone to clean up the burgeoning mold and vermin, residents and a local politician say.
Joyce Zoller, 58, who has owned a home on Neponsit Avenue with her husband, Cliff, 67, since 1993, said she has no choice but to find a new place to live after doctors determined her health was deteriorating as a result of the abandoned home next door.
"Her doctors are saying it's related to living next door to this toxic dump that's there," Cliff Zoller said.
The couple returned to their Neponsit Avenue home in February 2013 after it underwent repairs from the hurricane. Soon after, Joyce, who is in remission from thyroid cancer, said she started wheezing and experienced lightheadedness on a regular basis. The vision in her already legally-blind left eye became worse, she said.
After visiting with doctors, specialists and hiring a private environmental specialist, she learned that the vacant next-door house at 145-08 Neponsit Ave. — which city records show is owned by HSBC Mortgage Corporation — was making her sick.
"After 18 months, we're still battling a battle," Joyce said. "I'm tired. My body can't do it, and now I'm forced to leave my house."
The Zollers tried suing HSBC Mortgage Corporation, citing negligence and pointing to various issues and hardships they've dealt with with the house.
While workers come every few weeks to clean up the outside, they haven't stepped foot inside since the storm, leaving the interior to become a breeding ground for mold and other hazards, the Zollers said.
The couple's lawyer wrote in their lawsuit that there was a "horrible odor" coming from next door "due to the development of severe mold due to water damages."
An environmental study of the exterior of the home found that the spore count had "tested exceedingly high," and the house was also infested with vermin, forcing the Zollers to install rat traps around their garage, their lawyer wrote.
Living next to the house exacerbated Joyce's medical condition, resulting in "severe emotional damage," the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit asked the bank to take "corrective action" to clean out the house and remove mold to reduce the neighbors' exposure — but the judge ruled against the Zollers, saying they and their lawyer did not go after the "proper party."
The judge determined the proper party to be Freedom Mortgage Corporation, which currently holds the mortgage but doesn't own the house.
A spokesman for HSBC declined to comment, since it's the "subject of ongoing legislation."
Lawyer John DiGiovanni appealed the ruling in March, and is now going after Freedom Mortgage — a technicality that he said is too small for such an emergency situation.
"It doesn't mean anything to me because I always knew the owner of the property was responsible, not the mortgage company," he said. "How do they let these poor people live like that? Nobody really cares."
"In court you're a piece of paper," Joyce said, noting that she's tried multiple city agencies for help but nothing has been done.
The city's Health Department did not immediately comment about the unfixed homes. The city's Department of Environmental Protection referred questions to the health department and Department of Buildings.
The Zollers have filed complaints with the Department of Buildings, but they were all dismissed, according to city records. Still, the next-door home currently has two open DOB violations — the latest one filed on June 12, noted as an "immediate emergency" for facade issues.
The DOB did not respond to requests for comment.
Joyce, meanwhile, placed signs on her house pointing to next door, calling it a dump and noting that it has vermin running throughout.
"We're just two voices in the wilderness," she said. "We don't have deep pockets or powerful people behind us."
Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, though, said he's working on a plan to address the issue. He's aware of 60 similar homes in his southern Queens district, he said.
"Post-Sandy, the homes just aren't a risk for themselves, it's a community hazard," he said.
The Zollers are working to sell their own home, but their next-door home continues to hurt them even in the sales process, making the worth of their own home "devalued," according to the suit.
Joyce, who still plans to move to Brooklyn with her husband soon, said she hopes something good can come from this fight.
"I fought the cancer, I'm going to fight this battle, too," she said. "I'm not giving up."