One of the most visible signs of economic decline in Niagara Falls, New York, comes in the shape of “ghost” or “zombie” houses. Residential areas in the city are peppered with empty, boarded up and decaying houses. These houses are for the most part traditional mid-century clapboard structures, which even when down on their luck manage to project an air of pride and solid family values.
You can tell that they were once home to bustling families with children who rode their bikes and played ball in the backyard. Following the factory closures in the 1980s, homeowners, unable to find alternative employment, fell behind on their mortgage payments and tried to sell their houses. But no-one was buying, and they were thus forced to abandon their properties and seek a living elsewhere. Mortgage providers found themselves saddled with an inventory of properties with bad loans and no prospect of recouping the loss through selling; in order to avoid the added financial burden of property maintenance, in some cases they deliberately avoided completing the foreclosure process on the bad mortgages.
The decaying houses are not only an eyesore and potentially unsafe for nearby residents, but they also attract criminal activity. They provide shelter for the homeless, but as many of this group in Niagara Falls also suffer from drug addiction, this means that the dealers and gangland crime follow them into residential neighbourhoods.
The mayor says that the state has introduced legislation that allows the city to fine the lending institution $500 per day for code violations, if they have been informed that one of their properties has fallen into disrepair and they are doing nothing to fix it. The mayor maintains that the new legislation is slowly starting to have an effect.
However, the fact remains that, as a result of population decline, there is too much residential housing in Niagara Falls. What good is it to repair a house if no-one wants to buy it and live in it?