For real this time? City schedules tax lien sale

Dec. 17 event has been put off several times to spare delinquent owners

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (Getty)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (Getty)

With just a little more than three months left in its existence, the de Blasio administration said Tuesday it would finally hold its oft-delayed property tax lien sale.

The city’s Department of Finance announced it will hold the sale Dec. 17, except for properties owing water and sewer debt. The sale has been postponed repeatedly since May 2020, first by the city and then by the state.

The proximate reason for the delays was the pandemic, but the sale has long been frowned upon by local elected officials, who claim it unfairly costs some owners their properties. The administration, though, considers it an important impetus to get them to pay overdue bills for city services.

This would be the city’s first lien sale since the start of the pandemic. In January, the City Council authorized the lien sale for one year, instead of the typical four, exempting those who own 10 or fewer units if one is the owner’s primary residence. Such owners must also submit a hardship declaration.

According to the Department of Finance, more than 11,000 properties are eligible for the sale, though this total does not seem to reflect potential exemptions under the January law. A plurality of those properties — 4,519 — are in Brooklyn, followed by Queens’ 2,817 and Manhattan’s 1,373. The city lists 1,324 properties in the Bronx and 1,161 on Staten Island.

When state legislators extended eviction and foreclosure protections through Jan. 15, 2022, they also renewed options for property owners to avoid tax lien sales. The state provisions largely follow the exemptions laid out in the city’s measure.

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The city legislation also created a 12-person task force to study the feasibility of transferring properties — rather than setting them up for foreclosure by selling their tax liens — to community land trusts, land banks and mutual housing associations. The task force must issue recommendations by Nov. 1.

Typically the city notifies delinquent owners starting three months prior to the sale that their property is at risk of a lien sale. Opponents of the sale have long argued that property owners still do not realize that they are in arrears and that the practice disproportionately affects communities of color.

The city sells the owners’ outstanding debt to a nonprofit trust, which can ultimately foreclose on the unpaid taxes and take control of the property.

Housing advocates and elected officials have called for an end to the sale, pushing for the city to transfer foreclosed properties to nonprofits that would convert them to social uses, such as affordable housing.

Albert Scott Jr., president of the East New York Community Land Trust, said in a statement that he was “extremely disturbed” that the de Blasio administration had decided to move forward with the tax lien sale this year.

“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,” said Scott, a lifelong East New York resident. “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 their vulnerabilities.”