The city has eased its foreclosure policy, and there are fewer than half the number of new properties on the foreclosure list than last year.
Significant changes to the way the city forecloses on properties took effect this year, which could contribute to the shorter list of new properties that will be up for auction.
In the past, the city foreclosed on property owners who owed small amounts – $50 or $100 – and then would assess a $445 fee in January, bringing their total bill to more than $500.
In addition to a change in policy, in which the city brings foreclosure actions against only those owners who owe $200 or more, the city conducted a forensic analysis of its actual costs, and brought the total fee down to $305, said Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball.
“We think over time that will result in a reduction of properties in total because people will have the opportunity to pay off that bill short of foreclosure and fees attaching because that threshold is in place,” Ball said. “They can budget, they can figure it out so they won’t be thrust into foreclosure.”
The change in fees was part of a stipulation and settlement order issued in March, resulting from a lawsuit brought against the city regarding the $445 fee.
At the time of the settlement, city officials had said the changes were in the works, independent of the lawsuit.
Instead of charging a $445 foreclosure fee in January, this year the city moved the date at which a fee is charged to coincide with when the city actually starts having to bear the initial cost associated with foreclosure, which includes a title search. A fee of $150 is assessed on March 15 if the amount owed isn’t paid.
After May 1, the fee grows to $305. The additional $155 covers the city’s cost of advertising and sending out notices.
“That’s obviously better for our clients,” said Kevin Quinn, staff attorney with Legal Services for the Elderly, referring to the lower total fee.
In 2011, the city had 5,680 newly delinquent properties, before judgments were filed and settlements were reached. This year, that figure is 2,480. As of Sept. 21, when judgments were filed for property owners who hadn’t paid after notices were sent in February, 1,296 new properties were on the list. As of Monday, the city had 4,822 properties on the foreclosure list, which includes properties that were not sold in prior years. That number could decline significantly as settlements are reached.
The city faced a lawsuit last year over its foreclosure practices, and 892 properties that were on the list only because their owners hadn’t paid garbage fees were removed from the list under a judge’s order.
Other things can be done to reform the city’s system, such as allowing people to submit partial payments and setting up a hardship fund, said Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good.
Property owners can pay partially now, but they are charged interest on the full amount owed until they are paid up in full, Magavern said.
Mayor Byron W. Brown said it’s not the city’s desire to see property owners be foreclosed, and noted the city is engaged in negotiations with people who are struggling to pay their tax bills.
The efforts have been noticed outside City Hall.
“From our perspective things are different in the fact that the city is better organized and is really coordinating well with the court and the legal service providers,” said Robert M. Elardo, managing attorney with Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Elardo said though the system would be improved if property owners could make partial payments without being charged interest on the full amount, the city does try to keep people in their homes.
City lawyers will negotiate with property owners, who can represent themselves, the week before the auction.
Members of the corporation counsel’s office will meet with people whose properties are on the foreclosure list in the basement of County Court, 25 Delaware Ave., beginning at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 23-26.
The foreclosure auction will begin at 9 a.m. on Oct. 29, 30 and 31, and will be held in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, 153 Franklin St.