‘Stop this madness!’ AG James demands NYC delay or cancel Friday’s tax lien sale

September 3, 2020 Mary Frost
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It’s urgent that the city delay or cancel altogether this Friday’s planned water and tax lien sale, New York Attorney General Letitia James said on Wednesday. If Mayor Bill de Blasio won’t act in time, she will ask Gov. Andrew Cuomo to “step in and stop this madness.”

In the middle of a pandemic and with massive unemployment, thousands of New Yorkers could lose their homes in a city procedure James called flawed and heartless. James was joined by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and other officials at a rally in front of the city’s Department of Finance.

Roughly 9,000 properties are on the lien sale list, but the list “is rife with errors,” James said. About 4,700 of the buildings on the list are small one- to three-family homes, in neighborhoods already reeling from the pandemic. The majority are in communities of color, including Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Jamaica and Richmond Hills.

But buildings in Downtown Brooklyn, Red Hook, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and other neighborhoods are also on the list.

This brownstone at 53 Cranberry St. in Brooklyn Heights, valued at more than $5 million, is on the lien sale list. Photo via Google Street View

If homeowners do not enter into a payment agreement with the debt collector that bought their lien, they risk having their property seized. Meanwhile, fees and compounding daily interest rates mount.

The 9 percent or 18 percent interest rate “Compounds daily. Daily. Daily!” James said. “Decades of building up equity could be wiped out in one shot.”

That rate “sounds like usury,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. “Some of our homeowners right now just need a little help. The mayor is exacerbating the problems that already exist.” Whatever money the city collects from the lien sale will not match the problems this will cause the community, he said.

“De Blasio, if you don’t change this, you’re permanently deciding to make this pandemic worse,” Williams said.

Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr. said that Bedford-Stuyvesant normally has the tools to help those behind on their taxes or water bills make payment arrangements. But because of the pandemic, this outreach wasn’t available this year.

“Our help nights usually bring out hundreds, and they make payment arrangements. Good sense would say move the date,” he said.

The building housing Bruno’s Hardware, at 95 Court St. in Downtown Brooklyn, is one of the properties on the lien sale list. Photo via Google Street View

The city says that homeowners are given four notices – at 90-day notice, 60, 30 and 10 days. But mail service during the pandemic has been noticeably spotty in many neighborhoods, and some owners may not even be in the city.

Brooklyn has 3,891 homes on the lien sale list. In the Crown Heights ZIP code of 11213 alone, there are roughly 135 buildings listed; more than 140 buildings are located in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s 11216.Aaron Weber’s company Weber-Farhat Realty owns more than two dozen 10- to 12-unit pre-war buildings in neighborhoods including Chelsea, the East Village and Harlem. He says their buildings are not on the lien list yet, but fears what will happen in January when taxes are due.“We’re not going to have enough money to pay it,” he said. “There’s a huge hole in the budget from taxes in July … Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to collect 75 percent of the rent — but we had to pay taxes as per normal.”Weber’s company lost 100 percent of their commercial income, and 25 percent of its residential income. About ten percent of residents have moved away and he can’t find new tenants.

This small two-story building, 329 Herkimer St., located between Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue, is one of hundreds of Crown Heights homes affected by this Friday’s lien sale. The owner owes a water bill and has other debt. Photo via Google Street View

“We want the city to waive all late fees on taxes,” he said. “Another solution would be a one-for-one tax credit, meaning that if we forgive $100,000 to a commercial business, we will receive a $100,000 tax credit for the next taxes.”

Leo Goldberg, senior policy and research manager for the Center for New York Neighborhoods, which promotes and protects affordable homeownership, said that building owners on the list need to act fast on Thursday to prevent their liens from being sold on Friday.

“It helps to work with an advocate,” he said. The Center operates a hotline that can be reached at 646-786-0888.

Alternatively, building owners can reach out to the Department of Finance directly. To do so, Goldberg recommends calling the Office of the Taxpayer Advocate at DOF, at 212-312-1800, or emailing them at [email protected].

Other officials at the rally included State Sen. Leroy Comrie, Assemblymember David Weprin, Queens Borough President Sharon Lee, State Sen. John Liu, and Councilmember Carlos Menchaca.

More information can be found here.

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