Despite community and political opposition, the tax lien sale is slated for Dec. 17

A group of 57 elected officials from across New York led by the state’s attorney general is calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to stall a tax lien sale planned for Dec. 17.

In a letter to de Blasio co-signed by the other electeds, Attorney General Letitia James said New Yorkers must be given the chance to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic “without being forcibly removed from their homes.”

“New York City should be more attuned to the precarious state of New Yorkers’ budgets as the pandemic continues to bear down on its residents. Putting homeowners in a position where their homes are like to be foreclosed upon in the midst of the pandemic is wrong and short-sighted given that federal funding will be released in the coming weeks or months to prevent foreclosures,” she wrote.

New Yorkers, she said, were still facing significant financial burdens due to the pandemic, and including properties with delinquents water and tax bills in the tax lien sale would only exacerbate the economic crisis and result in homeowners — mostly in communities of color — potentially losing their homes during this time.

James added that it was the time for New York City to look ahead and come up with something more than a short-term fix for the tax lien sale that was a more just solution for New Yorkers.

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.

James said the buildings included in the sale every year were disproportionately located in communities of color, with the Coalition for Affordable Homes saying the city is six times more likely to sell a lien on a property in a majority Black neighborhood and two times more likely to sell a lien on a property in a majority Hispanic neighborhood than in a majority white neighborhood.

James added that because of the severe constraints that COVID-19 has placed on outreach efforts, much of this work was not done at nearly the same levels as in years past.

“As a result, many vulnerable families and individuals may not have any information about how to remove their homes from the sale or even be aware that their property is included in the sale.”

Bed-Stuy Councilmember Robert Cornegy Jr., chair of the Housing and Buildings Committee, said the City’s lien sale was intended to incentivize property owners to pay their taxes, “but the sale this year will likely force minority property owners to lose generational wealth.”

“It also threatens the homes of many renters, all while we are still reeling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clearly in the interest of New York City to delay the sale at this precarious moment.”

State Senator Zellnor Myrie urged the Department of Finance to cancel this year’s lien sale for small property owners, saying that “at a time of deep financial instability across the city, especially in vulnerable communities of color…City government should be working to support homeowners burdened by the pandemic and recession, not selling off their accumulated wealth to the private market.”

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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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