Buffalo's annual auction of foreclosed properties is a depressing rite of autumn, with thousands of houses, many of them marked for demolition, being put on the auction block. So it goes in the city with the nation's third-highest housing vacancy rate.
The sale is inevitable and, properly conducted, even useful. It brings some money into City Hall and can result in houses, or at least real estate, being returned to productive, taxpaying use. But the risks are also high. It is up to the city to ensure that these properties do not become fuel for further blight.
Two problems, in particular, must be avoided. The first is flipping. In the past, buyers have snatched up houses at bargain prices and then immediately sold them at significant profit, falsely claiming to have made improvements. The other is to ensure that buyers of properties marked for demolition know what they are getting.
Buffalo officials have taken steps to control both of those destructive practices. The city's Anti-Flipping Task Force is designed to guard against unethical sales, and needs to be especially vigilant during this tax sale.
Regarding condemned properties, the city plans to issue a "buyer beware" warning as properties recommended for demolition are put up for sale. The problem is especially acute this year, since the city says about 1,000 properties -- nearly a third of the 2,900 scheduled for auction -- need to be torn down.
The number of houses up for auction is thought to be a record, but barely so.
This year's 2,900 properties is up from 2,500 last year, but the average has been about 1,600. More than 1,300 of this year's properties are repeats -- city-owned properties that didn't sell in last year's auction. They represent properties that are delinquent not only in taxes, but also in garbage user fees and water bills.
Newly delinquent water bills were not added to this year's list of properties for sale.
Buffalo's strength lies in its neighborhoods. Blighted areas need to be encouraged back to health, while others must be protected from deterioration. That is the ultimate goal of the annual foreclosure sale. The city needs to pursue that goal carefully.