City lawmakers looking to keep taxes from cutting into homeownership

Local News

BUFFALO,N.Y. (WIVB)–As Buffalo’s housing market seems to get hotter by the day, city lawmakers are trying to keep more residents from getting shut out of the benefits of homeownership.

While some property taxes are coming down, others are going up which could raise tax bills for some Buffalo homeowners beyond what they can afford. At the same time city officials are considering a policy change for tax foreclosure sales that could leave some long-time homeowners with nothing.

When Buffalo land owners do not pay their property taxes for at least two years, their property goes on the auction block and the property is sold to pay the back taxes.

Every October the City of Buffalo auctions hundreds of properties, residential and commercial, to cover back taxes. Homeowners are entitled to the surplus funds after the tax bill is paid, but starting this year, city officials are considering a plan to keep those funds.

Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns told a Common Council committee at City Hall, Tuesday, that change could force families out of their homes, and deprive them of the money needed to buy or another home.

“Buffalo will have ‘zombie’ properties. You will be in charge of ‘zombies.’ We will have zombie properties in the city of Buffalo if this initiative goes through.”

Kearns has been fighting banks accusing them of creating zombie homes by foreclosing on the mortgages, then leaving the property vacant. Kearns believes the city’s plan to keep surplus funds will cause even more zombies.

Lovejoy Councilman Richard Fontana said a home is often a family’s life of savings, which would be lost if the tax sale policy changes.

“If they owe $5,000 in taxes, the house sells for $100,000 they should get roughly around $90,000 after fees.  But with this new proposal we want to make sure we protect that system so the residents do not lose the equity in their homes that they paid into them for all those years.”

Fontana’s Finance Committee held the hearing on the proposed changes to the city’s foreclosure policy, but those changes have not been put in writing, leading to questions from city councilmembers.

Niagara Councilman David Rivera thinks the new plan needs more work, “Once the city gets what it is due, anything above and beyond that should belong to the person that lost the property. I think that is the only fair thing to do.”

While most other cities in New York already keep surplus funds, Buffalo is unique in that the city could sell a property for as little as $400 in unpaid user fees.

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