City officials want new measures over foreclosures for user fees

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – A Buffalo couple says their home was sold out from under them because of unpaid garbage fees. Their story has led to new calls for more notification for homeowners before a city can sell a home.

When Buffalo collections officials hold their foreclosure sale each year and auction off hundreds of delinquent properties, as much as half of the inventory involves unpaid garbage user fees. Now city lawmakers are trying to change that.

Last November, Dawn Gonzalez received a letter saying her property on Esser Avenue had been sold for user fees. Those user fees, amounting to $443, sent her elderly parents’ home into foreclosure, after which city officials sold the house out from under them at a foreclosure sale last October.

Gonzalez says they had no idea the trouble they were in until after the sale.

“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to have my parents. Now you are telling me I have to take them from here,” she said.

While Gonzalez and her parents fight for their home in court, city lawmakers are crafting a reform measure to help residents stay in their homes.

Collections officials insist they send more notices than the law requires before putting a property on the auction block, but Common Council President Darius Pridgen says things happen, recalling another elderly couple in the city who nearly lost their home.

“Woman had Alzheimer’s, was throwing mail in the garbage on a daily basis,” Pridgen recounted.

He says that couple also had to go to court to save their home.

Pridgen said, “Somebody comes up to their home for what was a few hundred dollars in taxes owed or in garbage user fees and they were almost losing their house.”

The Common Council President says city foreclosure sales, per se, are not a bad thing. That is how he got an old supermarket here on East Ferry Street and converted it to a church. But selling off someone’s home for a few hundred dollars in unpaid user fees? That, Pridgen says, has to change.

“The process we have right now definitely needs to be tweaked,” Pridgen said.

Lovejoy Councilman Richard Fontana says collections officials should have to prove an owner was notified before taking their property.

He said, “One change I would like to see is actually physically nail the property with a notice. Drop off a notice to the property, tape it to the door. They call it ‘nail and mail’ in the legal fields.”

The Council’s reform measure just moved out of a committee in the last couple of weeks, a hopeful sign.

Meanwhile, Gonzales and her parents are challenging the sale of their Riverside home in court. That case goes in front of a state judge later this week.

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