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City wants to keep sites off foreclosure auction – unless you're a slumlord

Jerome Evans had just negotiated a payment plan with the city to keep his Riley Street home off the auction block.

The home was a gift from his mother-in-law, he said, but this was not the first time the dwelling was at risk of being sold in Buffalo’s foreclosure auction.

But this time will certainly be the last time, he vowed.

“It will never be again,” said Evans, as he was leaving the Treasurer’s Office in City Hall last week after making a payment that took his home off the list.

That means Evans’ property will not be one of more than 1,000 properties at risk of being sold in the city’s foreclosure auction Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The auction is also where the city itself is looking to snag between 20 and 40 properties, if not more, said Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the Mayor's Office of Strategic Planning.

This is the second year the city is operating under "super bid" authority granted by the state.  That means if there's a property on the foreclosure list that the city wants to acquire, it gets first shot at it.

It's made possible through a land bank process that the Brown administration sought from state lawmakers in Albany. The land bank bill was passed last year, and that was the first time Buffalo exercised its super bid power.

[PDF: See the list of properties that the city intends to land bank]

Land banking gives the city the ability to step ahead of investors in foreclosure auctions, said Mayor Byron W. Brown. The strategy is to acquire properties from out-of-town, absentee landlords who have not been taking care of their properties, make repairs to the properties and help people living in the neighborhoods around them become homeowners as opposed to renters.

The Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corp. is the land bank that bids for the city at the foreclosure auctions. Last year, the city obtained 62 structures through the land bank process. Some were returned to the property owners on the condition they fix outstanding code obligations. Others were demolished because of their condition. Forty-eight remain and have been cleaned out by workers with the Center for Employment Opportunities, Mehaffy said, and are undergoing inspections to determine the scope of work needed for rehabilitation.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has committed $1.4 million for rehabilitation of the structures located on the East Side, Mehaffy said. In addition, the city is working with New York State Homes and Community Renewal to secure additional funding for rehab citywide. Details are being worked out, and once final funding is secured, Brown will announce a new program that focuses on the sale of the properties to individuals living in the city who are looking to become homeowners in their own neighborhoods.

Early last week, the Office of Strategic Planning initially identified nearly 350 one- and two-unit structures and vacant lots that could be acquired through the land bank process. The figure dwindled to 177 by Friday afternoon, according to the city's website. But the number is expected to "drastically decrease" to between 20 and 40 properties by the time the foreclosure auction begins Tuesday, Mehaffy said.

That's largely because homeowners like Evans – who may owe back taxes, user fees or sewer and water charges – can try to settle their accounts or make payment arrangements right up until their property is called at the auction.

In addition, there's a process that's been in place for more than a decade that's intended to keep people in their homes. Since 2006, the Brown administration has had a foreclosure prevention initiative in which homeowners and business owners whose properties are in foreclosure can get help negotiating payment arrangements that enable them to keep their properties, Brown said.

In that time “we have been able to assist over 12,000 properties avoid foreclosure and stay in the hands of their owners,” he said.

This year, the negotiations were held over a three-day period last week at the Erie County Courthouse. Attorneys from the city’s Law Department and other City Hall employees work with not-for-profit organizations like the Legal Aid Bureau, Volunteer Lawyers Project, Center for Elder Law and Justice and the Western New York Law Center to help negotiate payment arrangements, Brown said.

“Our policy," Brown said, "is we don’t want to take anybody’s property through foreclosure.”

The tax foreclosure sale begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

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