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State hopes to ease city's vacant housing woes Agency has 1,499 liens; wants to return sites to tax rolls

The state is committed to cleaning up a messy housing situation that has left nearly 1,500 abandoned and/or dilapidated Buffalo homes in limbo, officials said Friday.

"The goal is to get them repaid or get them to auction," said Tiffany Berns, a spokeswoman for the Municipal Bank Bond Agency, a state agency charged with revitalizing neighborhoods and which holds the tax liens on 1,499 vacant properties in some of Buffalo's most deteriorating areas.

Since the liens were purchased back in 2003, many of the properties remain vacant and many have been cited for housing code violations. Some of the cases are pending in Housing Court.

About 115 of the 1,499 properties are in the Niagara District, according to members of PUSH Buffalo -- People United for Sustainable Housing, a resident-based community group on the West Side. PUSH recently launched a campaign, including a rally outside Statler Towers, aimed at getting state officials to create a comprehensive plan for returning the neglected properties to the tax rolls.

"Someone has to take responsibility for these properties," said Aaron Bartley, PUSH executive director.

The purchase of the 1,499 liens can be traced to an MBBA program created in 2003 to buy delinquent tax liens on properties from municipalities across the state. The purpose was to give municipalities a tool to manage delinquent property taxes, provide them with a source of revenue, and to resolve delinquencies, Berns explained.

The program paid Buffalo $4.3 million for the liens on the 1,499 properties. It paid another $10.7 million to take over liens in Binghamton, Syracuse, and Plattsburgh, giving all four cities operating cash and relieving them of the burden of having to collect the taxes.

In those other cities, the success rate in resolving liens has ranged from 50 to 80 percent, Berns said. But in Buffalo, the success rate is not nearly as good, though she said she didn't have a specific figure.

"We've noticed it doesn't have the same level of success in Buffalo," Berns said.

Buffalo officials said Friday the city attorney who handled the program recently retired and they couldn't immediately comment until looking into the matter further.

Berns said obstacles in serving foreclosure papers often include identifying and locating property owners.

"It's been a time-consuming effort because often there is either more than one person who has a legal interest in the property or the property owner is not on the property, so we can't locate them," Berns said.

To date, MBBA has initiated foreclosure against approximately 400 properties, she said. The next step for about 300 of those is the auction block.

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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