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.

The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, will allow municipalities and counties to begin court proceedings to force foreclosure to either begin or continue if the property in question is deemed “unsafe, unsanitary, dangerous or detrimental to the public safety or welfare.”

For a property to be deemed unsafe, the municipality must show the court it has inspected the property on three separate occasions with 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 avoid 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 intent to vacate and abandon the property and an inspection of the property shows no evidence of occupancy.

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

Woelfel, who serves as 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.

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.

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 full Senate.

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