BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – An elderly couple in Buffalo claims they had their house sold out from under them by the city due to unpaid fees totaling only $443.
The city foreclosed on the Esser Avenue property, forcing Bob and Lillian Rabatoy to rely on their children and grandchildren to help move them out of their home which their daughter has owned for 14 years.
“Oh, it’s going to be very tough,” says Bob Rabatoy, “Where are you going to find a place in the middle of the month, in the middle of winter?”
The Rabatoys’ daughter Dawn Gonzales, and her husband, own the home and are paying the mortgage and taxes. “Where am I supposed to put them?” asks Dawn, “My mother has Parkinson’s, my father is sick. They don’t want to leave the house.”
But they were forced to leave and now a lifetime of memories is packed up in a pile of boxes.
City collections officials said they have not received garbage user fees for the property for two years, amounting to $443.24, so last October, officials auctioned off the house at the city’s annual property foreclosure sale, known as “In Rem” foreclosures.
Dawn says she didn’t know about the foreclosure auction until November, “I received a letter saying the property was sold for user fees. I notified my mortgage company. The mortgage company said they were going to take care of it.”
But the mortgage company didn’t take care of it, and a New Jersey investor bought the house, posted a notice on the back door telling the Rabatoys to get out, and sent representatives for the new owner to personally deliver the message.
“We own the place”, Rabatoy says they told him, but even after he said his daughter was the owner, Rabatoy recalled one of the representatives asked to look the house over, “I want to see the upstairs. I want to rent it out right away.” But Rabatoy said, “You ain’t going nowhere!”
Gonzales claims she had no idea the property was on the auction block until after it was sold. She said no notices were ever received directly at the house on Esser Avenue, or to Dawn’s own home in Rochester.
News 4 Investigates learned, 4 years of county property taxes were not paid either, although records show they were supposed to be paid under the mortgage agreement.
The family is determined to not lose their home. They have put too much into the house, including 14 years of mortgage payments, to give up now, they said.
“I’m going to give up the house for $400? You can’t even rent an apartment for $400. Why would I give it up for $400?” Dawn said.
City officials insist they send at least 15 delinquency notices to a homeowner before putting their property up for sale as a foreclosure. In this case, city records show 38 letters were sent out, but only 7 letters went to the Gonzales’ addresses in Buffalo and Rochester.
Attorney Keisha Williams, with the Western New York Law Center, says the Rabatoys are not alone, “A lot of people say ‘We never received the letter.’”
The law center has challenged the City of Buffalo’s In Rem practices in court, on behalf of hundreds of property owners, and Williams says there should be a policy of preventing foreclosures, “It is best for the city. It is best for everyone to have people living in their homes.”
Housing advocates also strongly object to the city foreclosing and selling homes for delinquent user fees, which one study found, comprised more than half of all Buffalo foreclosures in 2011.
Williams believes Buffalo’s foreclosure policy is adding to the city’s blight, because many of the people who lose their homes in the In Rem auctions are long-time residents, “They care about the city, and they want to do the right thing.”
The Rabatoys could lose their home over $400 in user fees, but Williams tells News 4, Buffalo homeowners were losing their homes for even less, until two years ago, when the Western New York Law Center negotiated a deal with the city setting a $200 minimum for foreclosure.
“Someone losing their home for $200,” adds Williams, “It’s absolutely ridiculous. It is more than ridiculous.”
Buffalo Common Councilmember Richard Fontana says even with the separate user fee and foreclosures, the city is coming up millions of dollars short in the garbage removal fund and city lawmakers are looking to overhaul Buffalo’s collections practices to help homeowners stay in their homes, while the city would recover more of what is owed.
One of the biggest issues is notifying the legal owners before their property goes into foreclosure, “There is always ways people can say they didn’t get notice,” but Fontana concedes there could be cases where someone really just doesn’t get the mail, or has a wrong address, and “Those are the hardship cases. That’s where the courts have to intervene.”
New 4 Investigates asked Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown’s spokesman about Buffalo’s foreclosure practices, and he referred us to the City’s attorney, Tim Ball, who declined an on-camera interview.
Instead Ball emailed a statement saying, “The city goes to great lengths to prevent foreclosure, negotiating over 1,300 court orders to stay foreclosures for homeowners, last year alone.”
In regards to prior notice being sent, Ball points out, “The city also ends five times the number of legally required notices to homeowners facing foreclosure,” but conceded they are not required to show the notices were actually received.
Ball adds, “Once the title is transferred only the court can reverse the sale.”
Meaning, the Rabatoys now have to sue the city to keep their home. Dawn is upset, “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to have my parents. Now you’re telling me I have to take them from here?”
Bob Rabatoy says he will fight to keep the house, “It ain’t the beautiful-est house in the world, but it’s ours.”
The family has hired a lawA New York State judge has put the transfer of the property on hold until later this month.