BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB)–There seemed to be far fewer heartbreaking stories generated by Buffalo’s tax foreclosure sale this year, than in years past—families losing their homes that were sold by the city to pay the back taxes.
Over the years, the number of tax delinquent properties on the auction block at Buffalo’s In rem sale might range from 1,000 to 2,500 listings at the annual tax foreclosure sale.
This year, during the three-day from October 29 to October 31, the city’s Department of Assessment and Taxation sold only 374, which city officials believe to be the lowest in recent history, and the sale tentatively netted $9 million for city coffers.
City officials also changed their policy for selling the properties. In previous In rem auctions, if a property is sold for much more than the back taxes, penalties, and user fees, the property owner would have a claim to the surplus.
This year, as Jason Shell, Buffalo’s Commissioner of Assessment and Taxation pointed out, every property that went on the auction block was owned by the city, so the city keeps the surplus.
“They were struck to the city on the Monday before. The city then took ownership and sold the properties, and there is a standard process which property owners can follow to recover any surplus funds after.”
City attorneys also worked with homeowners and business owners facing foreclosure to get them off the auction block, through the city’s Foreclosure Assistance Program. Shell said tax officials started with about 4,000 delinquent properties which was whittled down to less than 400.
“It is working towards helping them make the means to an end to keep their properties” Did city officials put more effort toward settling tax debts this year than in years past? “Absolutely, by design.”
The Western New York Law Center helped more than 100 of those homeowners work out payment plans. Law Center attorney Amy Gathings recalled a client whose ability to pay was severely curtailed by medical issues.
“Her only income is Social Security. She fell behind on both county and city taxes and we were able to help her negotiate with the county and the city to get her out of foreclosure.”
Gathings said city attorneys did seem more willing to help homeowners hold onto their property, but lawyers are still not clear how the city decides who gets to keep those surplus funds, and which surpluses the city keeps.
“They actually owned the properties before they auctioned them off. In the past they have not done that. They have just held a public auction and sold what they could at the auction.”
City officials said this new policy gives them more flexibility with surplus funds. Previously a homeowner would have to go to court to claim the surplus. Now, since the city owns the property the former homeowner can request those funds through Buffalo’s Law Department.