The recent tax foreclosure auction of properties in Buffalo proved once again that this city is a forgiving kind of place. Or, maybe, just a foolish one.
The auction demonstrated that city government hasn't yet found a way to control sales to landlords with already-questionable records. It also included court-approved, last-minute discount deals that let owners hold on to their tax-delinquent buildings. We thought judges were supposed to protect their communities, not aid in their deterioration.
Commercial sites that new and responsible owners might be able to take over and make into tax-paying businesses can instead limp along or stand vacant for at least another year. Deteriorating homes can be "flipped" in quantity, snapped up at auction and sold, with little or no improvement but at an often quick profit, to inexperienced low income home-buyers who can find themselves left with empty promises and expensive repair needs. Houses deteriorate, and so do neighborhoods.
Even well-meaning landlords can overextend themselves when multitudes of cheap properties go on sale. So far, efforts to set standards for purchasers haven't amounted to much, and city officials say it would be difficult to craft limits that could withstand court tests.
But State Attorney Gen. Eliot Spitzer, for one, thinks it would be possible to fashion a local law that allows tax sales only to "responsible bidders," defined not only by whether they have debts to the city or outstanding housing code violations - the current standard - but by past activities.
That might have eliminated concerns over this week's inability to block bids by a local landlord with a history of fines and restitution payments involving home-sale practices. At the very least, Buffalo should be able to insist that buyers investing at auction in multiple properties know what work those properties need, and show that they have the resources to get the jobs done. That's not the case today.
And it doesn't help that the courts allow last-minute deals that pull commercial properties off the auction block. Several properties were withdrawn this year when State Supreme Court justices, over the objections of city attorneys, issued court orders blocking foreclosure sales after owners made partial payments of back taxes.
There may be times when business owners deserve second chances. But judges should be cautious in awarding them, and stop acting as insurers of last resort for irresponsible owners. And while they're at it, judges ought to give city objections more sympathetic attention than they have up to now.