Brooklyn community groups called on the City to cancel the controversial tax lien sale planned for December, saying in a public meeting Oct. 1 that the sale increases the racial wealth gap.

Representatives of Habitat for Humanity, the New York City Network of Worker Cooperatives, Legal Services NYC, Bridge Street Development Corporation, Housing Organizers for People Empowerment, Small Property Owners of New York, New York City Artists Coalition, CUNY’s Hunter School of Urban Policy and Planning, the Abolish the Tax Lien Sale Coalition, and more, all spoke at the hearing, urging the city to rethink its lien sale practices.

Bridge Street Development Corporation President and CEO Gregory Anderson told those in attendance that the group firmly believed and strongly recommended that the lien sale scheduled for December should be cancelled.

“Given the historic and potentially negative impact of the lien sale on increasing the racial wealth gap within our community, we believe that until there is consensus, there should be no sale,” he told those in attendance.

The lien sale is held every year by the New York City Departments of Finance and Environmental Protection, where the tax liens on properties with unpaid property taxes and water bills are sold off in an auction.

The City sells the liens to a single authorized buyer, who does not take title to the property, but does purchase the right to collect the money owed plus interest and fees — ultimately multiplying the debt.

If the property owner does not pay, the lien holder may foreclose on the property and the building will be sold at auction.

This year, the Department of Environmental Protection has opted out of the sale, which will only include Department of Finance held property tax liens, not water and sewer liens.

However, the reduced sale still includes 11,194 properties that have outstanding property tax and emergency repair payments that are past-due to the City. There are 3,657 one-to-three family homes, 3,295 apartment buildings and 4,242 other properties on the list.

Anderson said his organization had worked closely with the Department of Finance, HPD, Community Board 3, our local elected officials and community partners for many years on outreach to property owners on the lien sale list, and had provided assistance with access to eligible exemptions and DOF payment plans.

This past summer, he said, the group conducted outreach using the list from the cancelled 2020 lien sale and partnered with the Brownstoners of Bed-Stuy, who went door-to-door to inform homeowners that their property was at risk.

When the 2021 sale was announced last month, he said the group was “dismayed” to see the number of Brooklyn addresses on the list increased from 1,151 on the 2020 list to 4,519.

“Of great concern is that of the 4,519 Brooklyn properties on the lien sale list, 484, or 11% are in Community Board 3 and 422, or 9% are in Council District 36. To account for the overlap, 866 addresses or 19% are in Districts 36 and 41,” he said.

“These numbers speak to the disproportionate negative impact that the tax lien sale has had on Black and Brown communities.”

He said the number of properties that are subject to the sale “clearly illustrates” that homeowners and property owners are facing financial deficits and challenges, made worse by the pandemic. The sale, he added, had served as both motivation and incentive for deed theft and scammers that have preyed on members of the community, and that is because scammers are focused on the size of the lien versus the value of the property.

“At a time when the Administration and Council have implemented several programs and actions to address the racial income and wealth gap, the City should not continue a fiscal and financial practice that only intensifies the wealth gap.”

Joan Erskine, of Brooklyn Level Up, said at the hearing: “The tax lien sale takes the financial problems of struggling homeowners who live in the City, are part of the City, to whom the City owes a duty of representation and makes those problems a profit generator for institutional investors who owe the City nothing and to whom the City owes nothing.”

Community groups such as East New York Community Land Trust (ENYCLT) have been advocating for reform, arguing the sale pushes longtime tenants out of their homes. Albert Scott Jr., Trust President and lifelong East New York resident, previously told BK Reader the group was “extremely disturbed” that Mayor Bill de Blasio had decided to hold the lien sale this year while people continued to struggle with the effects of the pandemic.

“When people are already behind on their bills, the fees and interest that the private tax lien trust charges can easily put them over the brink,” he said.

“The racialized impact of the tax lien sale is blatantly clear – communities like East New York are hit the hardest because of a long list of exclusionary policies including unfair lending practices, and the tax lien sale weaponizes this.”

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Anna Bradley-Smith

Anna Bradley-Smith is Brooklyn-based reporter with bylines in NBC, VICE, Slate and others. Follow her on Twitter @annabradsmith.

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