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State agency releases poorly redacted “zombie property” complaint log

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State agency releases poorly redacted “zombie property” complaint log

One month after a report in the Staten Island Advance raised questions about the efficacy of new legislation intended to mitigate the scourge of so-called “zombie” properties, the state agency tasked with enforcement released a related complaint log with faulty redactions, then declined to elaborate on its puzzling contents.  

Part of the law, which took effect in December, imposed certain pre-foreclosure maintenance and reporting requirements on lenders; failure to comply can potentially result in civil penalties. But the Advance revealed in August that the state Department of Financial Services had yet to issue “a single penalty against a bank or mortgage provider for failure to maintain and secure a property,” a void DFS attributed to “broad compliance” from the regulated entities.

The law also requires DFS to maintain an electronic registry of statewide vacant and abandoned properties. The database’s contents are deemed confidential—exempt from the state Freedom of Information Law—though public officials may obtain information specific to their constituencies.

We recently requested under FOIL copies of all complaints about zombie properties submitted to DFS since the law’s enactment. Citing the confidentiality provision, which is predicated on the idea that vacant properties can attract criminal behavior, DFS initially refused to release the complaints.

But after we argued in an administrative appeal that the exemption concerned only the registry, not complaints pertaining to the properties, DFS relented, releasing a 60-page PDF that appears to show 1,149 unique complaints.

The log has nine columns: (1) Case_num, (2) Property Address, (3) Validity, (4) Respondent, (5) Representative, (6) Status, (7) [Date] Received, (8) Compl._ZIP, and (9) Repr._ZIP.

DFS redacted property addresses, “representatives,” and all zip codes, citing provisions of FOIL that allow agencies to withhold records that, if disclosed, would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and “could endanger the life or safety of any person,” respectively. But when we opened the document in Adobe Acrobat Reader DC—a free and widely used PDF viewer—clicked “Select All,” then copied and pasted the data into a text editor, the apparent contents of four redacted columns were revealed.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of the unredacted columns is their respective uniformity. Under Property Address, every row entry says, “Property Address.” Under Representative—which, based on language in the appeal determination, we’ve inferred is a possible synonym for complainant—the same person’s name appears in every row. And both zip code columns contain only one zip code—14075, which corresponds to the town of Hamburg in Erie County. (We attempted, without success, to contact a person who has the same name as the lone representative and who has apparent ties to the same area.)

We cannot, without more information, really explain these oddities. Public officials in Hamburg did not respond to an inquiry about the approximate number of zombie properties in their town, but we found it rather implausible that every complained-about structure was located there. As to every row entry under “Property Address” saying “Property Address,” perhaps the actual log—as maintained and used by DFS in its original, non-PDF file format—links somehow to the actual address. In essence, it is unclear how closely the log we received resembles the log DFS employees may interact with in its active form, and we must further allow for the possibility that the data revealed by our copy-paste does not, for whatever reason, reflect the variety of what has actually been submitted to the agency and logged.

In response to a list of questions about the redaction-related mishap and the log’s content, DFS provided a one-sentence statement attributed to an unnamed spokesperson.

“Data was redacted for public safety and personal privacy reasons consistent with applicable law but, for inadvertent technical reasons we are addressing, the redactions in this production were able to be manipulated,” the statement read.

“As for your other questions,” the agency wrote in a subsequent email, “please refer back to the statement.”

We forwarded the exchange to a spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seeking answers to the same questions, but did not receive a response.

We had sought, among other information, definitions of certain terms in the log. Column header “Validity,” for instance, essentially features seven different determinations, including “Mediated Property Preservation Complete”—the most common determination, appearing 357 times—and “No Jurisdiction,” which appeared 291 times. Other, less frequent determinations include “No Information In Registry,” “Duplicate,” and “No Authority To Act.”

Under “Status,” nearly all of the cases are marked “CLOSED.” Just over two dozen are marked “ASSIGNED,” “REOPEN,” or “OPEN.”

Around 75 different “respondents” appear in the log, with some lenders appearing dozens of times. By far the most frequently named respondent, however, was “None,” which appears more than 400 times.

If you know anything about this DFS initiative, please get in touch (luke@thealt.com). Photo from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Flickr account

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