Family’s foreclosure fight could bring changes in law

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Bob Rabatoy’s family is fighting in court to keep their home.

“It ain’t the beautiful-est house in the world, but it’s ours,” he says.

His fight could lead to changes in city foreclosure practices.

If you don’t pay your property taxes, your local government can foreclose on it and auction off your property to pay the back taxes, often amounting to thousands of dollars. That happens everywhere.

But in the City of Buffalo, you can lose your home – as the Rabatoys did – over garbage user fees, which in most cases, are only a few hundred dollars.

The case has turned into a call for foreclosure reform in Buffalo, after the city auctioned the family’s home out from under them over $442 in unpaid garbage user fees. Bob and his wife Lillian are now facing the threat of eviction.

“It is going to be very tough,” Bob said. “Where are you going to find a place in the middle of the month?””

The Rabatoys are now in court to keep the New Jersey man who bought the house on Esser Avenue from taking it. A judge has issued an order allowing the family to stay in their Riverside home.

Buffalo attorney Michael Risman is representing the Rabatoys, and their daughter Dawn Gonzales, who owns the Esser Avenue home, with her husband Jose.

Risman commented after getting the injunction from Supreme Court Justice Tracey Bannister, “We are pleased that the judge granted our motion for a preliminary injunction to allow this family, this elderly couple, to stay in their residence, pending the outcome of this case.”

The court battle is taking place as city officials are also crafting a reform measure that would prevent homeowners from losing their homes over a few hundred dollars in back taxes, or user fees, and as in the Rabatoys’ case, because they didn’t know the house was on the auction block.

Attorney Joseph Kelemen is helping in those reform efforts, but says, “I think they are taking baby steps, in this direction, and I would like to see them take larger steps.”

Kelemen is executive director of the Western New York Law Center and sent a letter to Common Council Majority Leader Demone Smith, basically outlining changes that need to be made before the next foreclosure sale.

One of those recommendations calls for personally serving notice to homeowners whose homes are in jeopardy, rather than depending on the mail or public postings to inform them.

Kelemen says he has already discussed the issue with city attorneys, saying, “What they agreed to do is basically try to identify those properties that are owner-occupied, and do some sort of personal service to the people in them, just as a bank would do if it were foreclosing on property.”

A committee of Common Council members is meeting next week to go over Kelemen’s recommendations, and they are trying to get those changes approved before the city’s next foreclosure auction, next fall.

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