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AG, City Leaders Demand Removal of Thousands of Homes From Tax Lien Sale

Tax and water lien sales put vulnerable homeowners further at risk during the COVID-19 crisis, they say
Attorney General Letitia James. Photo: Matt Cohen for Flickr

Attorney General Letitia James and 57 NYC elected officials are urging Mayor Bill de Blasio to delay, reform and remove thousands of properties from the city's annual tax and water lien sale.

They say the sale would exacerbate the financial stress thousands of homeowners, particularly in communities of colors, were experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

James said it was the time to support hardworking homeowners, not saddle them with undue financial burden. In a letter to the mayor, James and the elected officials called for the removal of more than 4,700 residential buildings with three or fewer units from the tax lien sale scheduled for September 4, 2020. 

Signatories include Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, state senators Zellnor Myrie and Kevin Parker, and councilmembers Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Robert E. Cornegy, Jr. Laurie A. Cumbo, Brad Lander and Farah Louis.

"The tax lien sale has a disproportionate impact on communities of color and will only exacerbate the financial hardships so many are already facing in the middle of a pandemic," James said.

"It's incumbent on government to protect the people, not kick them when they're already down, and I urge Mayor de Blasio to take action immediately."

Each year, the Department of Finance auctions the tax liens on properties for unpaid property taxes and water bills to debt collectors. Once sold, surcharges, legal fees and high and compounding interest rates turn small tax liens into overwhelming financial burdens for homeowners, eventually pushing them into foreclosure.

The buildings are disproportionately located in communities of color, that have already been hit extremely hard by the pandemic. Normally, the city does outreach to homeowners in debt, letting them know they are at risk of being included in the sale. But, because of COVID-19, outreach has been done at much lower levels than normal.

De Blasio only announced on August 23 the sale would take place, leaving vulnerable families with little information or time to prepare.

Senator Myrie urged the Department of Finance to cancel this year's lien sale for small property owners, given the time of deep financial instability, 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," he said.

The letter calls on the city to eliminate water and sewer lien sales for low and middle-income occupants of one-to-three family homes, create a "Homeowner Advocate" who would help homeowners navigate different agencies involved in the tax lien sale and to exclude nonprofits and houses of worship from both the water and the property tax lien sale.