The first thing to note about the effort to change foreclosure rules in the City of Buffalo is that those rules are desperately wrong. The notion that families can lose their homes for being delinquent on garbage user fees is something out of Charles Dickens.
That’s the rule that Common Council Majority Leader Demone A. Smith wants to change. That kind of foreclosure happens and it’s nothing short of a crisis. Of 4,235 properties that could be auctioned in October because of delinquent city bills, nearly half – 44 percent – are on the list only because the property owner did not pay the garbage user fee.
Last year, an Amherst couple’s $147,000 Parkside rental home was sold at auction because of $600 in unpaid garbage user fees. The couple said foreclosure notices never reached them, and while they eventually got the house back, it was only after a legal fight and loss of work time. All over $600 in late garbage fee payments. That’s the crime.
To fix this problem, nonprofit organizations, including the Partnership for the Public Good, are pushing several changes in foreclosure rules. One would ban foreclosure of owner-occupied properties with one to four units strictly because of delinquent garbage fees.
Another would allow partial payments of unpaid taxes and fees to forestall foreclosures. Under current rules, the city holds partial payments from property owners but doesn’t apply them until the full debt is paid. Thus, partial payments don’t hold off foreclosure.
Joseph A. Kleman, executive director of the Western New York Law Center, put the matter succinctly: “We think it’s a harsh, harsh remedy.”
Indeed it is. Taking someone’s home away needs to be the last resort in only the most compelling circumstances. The city’s existing policy makes it a preliminary resort in the most mild of circumstances and, in doing so, not only renders families homeless, but contributes to the city’s glut of vacant properties. This policy is a loser every way you look at it.
Smith, who is an ally of Mayor Byron W. Brown, hopes to have the rules changed before next spring’s auctions, but that’s too late. With some 1,800 properties subject to auction this fall over the garbage fee, the city needs to move faster. Why compound the crime?