Local politicians and community organizations gathered at City Hall this week to call on Mayor Bill de Blasio to cancel the controversial tax lien sale, which is slated for Dec. 17

The Coalition for Affordable Homes, which is made up of 28 housing nonprofits, community associations, local development corporations and legal services agencies, organized the rally and was joined by City Council members Adrienne Adams, Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Carlina Rivera and Robert Cornegy.

Cornegy, who represents Bed-Stuy, said the City’s lien sale was intended to incentivize property owners to pay their taxes, but this year’s sale would “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,” he said.

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.

In a recent analysis, the Coalition for Affordable Homes found that of the liens sold in Brooklyn in 2011, nearly half of the one- to three-family homes were sold within five years of the lien sale, compared to 13% of similar properties in the borough during the period.

Christie Peale, CEO and executive director of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, said with the pandemic still surging, it was “incredibly bad timing for another tax lien sale.”

“New Yorkers, especially in communities of color, have been so hard-hit by the pandemic, and homeowners and their tenants are still struggling to recover,” she said.

“Going forward with the tax lien sale would create undue burden and stress for our neighbors and their tenants at a time when they need more support than ever.”

The Coalition for Affordable Homes recommends that New York City lawmakers conduct a racial impact analysis to understand the impact of tax lien sales’ on vulnerable homeowners. Other recommendations include:

  • Do not sell liens on taxes for homes with only one to three units (class 1), coops, or condos
  • Improve payment plan accessibility
  • Allow seniors to access property tax exemptions on a rolling basis, and to start receiving their exemptions at any point during the taxable year after an application has been approved. In cases where homeowners recertify their exemptions after they have expired (as they do annually by law), arrears should be retroactively reduced.
  • In the case of a new tax lien or homeowner reapplication for tax exemption, the city should look back into three years of the owner’s tax history to look for exemptions and ensure the property actually does belong on the list. For seniors newly-enrolled in the exemption program who have outstanding tax balances, allow the same three-year lookback to check for previous exemptions– once again to determine if the property properly belongs on the list. 
  • Allow heirs to enter into payment plans.
  • Improve pre-sale noticing, communications and outreach (including info on how to access housing counseling, legal services).

Earlier this month, a group of 57 elected officials from across New York led by the state’s attorney general called on de Blasio to stall the tax lien sale. 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.”

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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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