Showdown Over Tax Lien Sale Continues

(Pikist.com)

Mayor Bill de Blasio blew off a New York City Council Finance Committee hearing on Thursday discussing the city’s tax lien sale, a sign of the administration’s frustration over attempts to stall the sale. 

The no-show by the mayor comes after local lawmakers spent weeks pressuring him to not go forward with the tax lien sale. 

“This would have been an excellent opportunity for the administration to explain the rationale behind this policies and clear up any confusion that may have arisen as a result of the shifting plans,” said City Councilmember Daniel Dromm (D-Elmhurst, Jackson Heights), Chair of the Finance Committee, at the start of the hearing. “Unfortunately the administration has chosen not to send anyone to provide testimony or answer any of our questions.”

The hearing was about a resolution supporting legislation in the Assembly and Senate that, if passed, would postpone the city’s tax lien sale until after the coronavirus pandemic ends. 

The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment for why they did not send a representative to the hearing. 

The effort to delay was led by a contingent of elected officials from Southeast, Queens, which has three of the five city council districts with the most properties listed for the sale. The sale would disproportionately affect homeowners of color at the time when they are already struggling because of the pandemic, the lawmakers said. Their concern is primarily for small homeowners with one to three family homes, who make up around half of the list. 

The mayor stood firmly by the sale date, which was supposed to take place last Friday, Sept 4. But, Governor Andrew Cuomo swooped in last minute with an executive order postponing it until after Oct. 4 with the option to postpone it longer. Minutes later, the mayor issued his own statement announcing that the sale was rescheduled for September 25, more than a week before the executive order allows.

The local resolution supporting the state level legislation was introduced by City Councilmember Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica, Richmond Hill, Rochdale Village, South Ozone Park), one of the lawmakers who led the push to get the sale postponed past the Sept. 4 date.   

“Are we left to believe that the administration intends to move forward in violation of the governor’s order?” Adams said in her testimony during the hearing. 

In response to questions about when the tax lien sale would be taking place, and whether or not the administration thought there was ample time to do outreach to property owners and purge the list of properties that shouldn’t be on it, a representative from the Department of Finance said that the executive order was being carefully examined.

Messaging online about the date of the tax lien sale is unclear.

As of Friday afternoon, the 311 portal about the tax lien sale said that debts must be paid off by Sept. 24, indicating that the sale will take place on Sept. 25. The Department of Finance’s website also says that debts must be paid by Sept. 24 but it also acknowledges the governor’s executive order prohibiting tax lien sales before Oct. 4. 

“I think the governor’s executive order takes precedent,” said Assemblymember David Weprin (D-Richmond Hill, Fresh Meadows), the sponsor of the Assembly bill, in an interview before the hearing. “It just seems unfair during the pandemic at all that we should be having any tax lien sale.” 

The city needs funds but the amount the sale will raise is minimal compared to the damage it will cause the small property owners who’s liens are on the list, he said later in the hearing.

Attorney General Letitia James said that she saw the way tax lien sales destroy communities during her time in the city council. If the sale goes on before the Oct. 4 deadline, she’ll stop it. 

“If any city moves to sell liens before that date, my office will take immediate legal action to enforce the executive order,” she said. 

In the meantime, Senator Leroy Comrie’s (D-Briarwood, Cambria Heights, Hollis, Hollis Hills, Hillcrest, Jamaica, Jamaica Estates, Jamaica Hills, Kew Gardens, Laurelton, Queens Village, Rosedale, South Jamaica, Springfield Gardens, St. Albans) office planning for what they said is the worst case scenario –– that the sale happens on Sept. 25. They and the other electeds are doing as much outreach as they can so property owners can settle their debt with the city or enter payment plans before the sale date. 

“We’re trying to do everything we can to inform as many people as we can,” Comrie said.

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