Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Municipal Foreclosure Sale Triggered By Unpaid $600 Garbage Bill Raises Questions Over Crappy Legal Notice Given To Delinquent Homeowners

In Buffalo, New York, The Buffalo News reports:

  • The Cottones’ first indication that something was amiss came in a panicked call from one of their tenants, who had just opened an envelope from the City of Buffalo. Their house in Parkside had been sold.

    “You can’t imagine the stress of thinking the unthinkable, that something has happened and your house is gone,” Jerry Cottone said.

    An unpaid garbage fee of about $600 had landed their house on the city’s auction list.

    The Cottones eventually won their house back in court. But in the meantime, they had to hire a lawyer, get a judge’s order, miss work and spend countless hours worrying that they had lost their investment property.

    Their situation raises the question of what lengths the city or any municipality must pursue when notifying homeowners of delinquent fees and taxes, and the consequences of foreclosing on properties that owe small amounts.

    Jerry and his wife, Catherine Cook-Cottone, acknowledge they forgot about the garbage fee when they moved to Amherst in 2010 and didn’t join the city’s rental registry, which allows the city to find property owners who live elsewhere. But they said they received no notice that their house was in danger of being foreclosed. They did receive other city bills at their Amherst home and paid them, so they thought the city knew where they were.

    “At 6 o’clock at night, your tenant calls you and says the letter says the house has been sold, and you have no idea what the heck could be going on,” said Jerry Cottone. He got the call in early December, five weeks after the house was sold.

    The Cottones lived in the Woodward Avenue house for 10 years and kept it as an investment property when they moved. They said they never saw the garbage fee bills sent to Woodward.

    After two years, the unpaid fees amounted to about $600, so the city sold their two-family house, assessed at $147,000, for $110,000 in the city auction.

    The city sends out some 14 notices to a property owner that their home is on the city’s auction list, warning them to pay up or lose the house, but the Cottones said they never received any.

    But when the city sent a notice to Woodward that the house had been sold, their tenants opened it and immediately called them.

    The tenants also routinely gave them junk mail, such as advertisements for sweepstakes, the Cottones said, so they doubt foreclosure notices from the city were being discarded. The tenants submitted statements to the court saying they never received the city’s notices.

    The city’s top attorney, Corporation Counsel Timothy A. Ball, insisted that the city did indeed send notices to the Woodward Avenue house, as it does for every property whose owners have fallen behind in their bills. “The city complied with all laws, rules and regulations,” Ball said.

    First-class letters to the Woodward Avenue property from the city were not returned to the city as undeliverable, though a certified letter was, according to the city’s submission to the court.

    Property owners who have lost their house at the auction but were not notified is something attorney Paul B. Curtin hears often enough for him to think it’s a problem.

    “People come to me in huge, major crisis,” said Curtin, who works for Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo and represents low-income defendants who are in danger of losing their homes. “Why would so many people on such a regular basis try to game me with that excuse?”
For more, see Amherst couple’s foreclosure nightmare is a real-life cautionary tale (Amherst couple’s first sign their Buffalo property was in arrears was a notice that it had been sold at auction).

No comments: