NYU’s Furman Center has released a Data Brief, Selling the Debt: Properties Affected by the Sale of New York City Tax Liens. It opens,
When properties in New York City accrue taxes or assessments, those debts become liens against the property. If the debt remains unpaid for long enough, the city is authorized to sell the lien to a third party. In practice, the city retains some liens (because it is legally required to do so in some cases and for strategic reasons in other cases), but it sells many of the liens that are eligible for sale. In this fact brief, we explore the types of properties subject to tax lien sales but exclude Staten Island due to data limitations and exclude condominium units. Between 2010 and 2015, we find that 15,038 individual properties with 43,616 residential units were impacted by the tax lien sale. We answer three questions: (i) what kinds of properties have had a municipal lien sold in recent years? (ii) where are those properties located in the city? (iii) what happens to a property following a lien sale?
We present this information to shine a light on a somewhat obscure process that affects a significant number of properties in the city. Also, the lien sale has a number of policy implications. Tax delinquency can be an indicator of distress; property owners who have not paid their taxes may also cut back on building maintenance and investment. This could have ramifications for owners, tenants, and neighborhoods. The city, social service providers, and practitioners in the community development and housing fields may find this descriptive information helpful as they think about interventions related to the health of housing and neighborhoods.
In addition, the choice of whether to retain a tax lien or to sell the lien also presents a policy choice for the city—selling the lien allows the city to collect needed revenue it is owed; but, with the sale, the city gives up the leverage that it holds over delinquent property owners, which can be used in some cases to move properties into affordable housing programs or meet other strategic goals. The city could retain that leverage by selling fewer liens; but, then it would not only lose the revenue generated by the sale, it would also incur the cost of foreclosing or alternative interventions. The lien sale is part of the city’s municipal debt collection program, and the city must be careful that policy changes do not undermine the city’s debt collection efforts.
With this fact brief, we aim to shed some light on the real world consequences and opportunities triggered by the city’s current treatment of municipal liens. (1-2, footnotes omitted)
New York City has sure come a long way from the 1970s when the City was authorized to foreclose on properties with tax liens. The issue then was that the owners of thousands of buildings did not think it was worth it to pay their taxes. Their preferred strategy was to stop paying their bills and collect rents until the City took their properties away from them. After the City took possession of these buildings, it repurposed many of them into affordable housing projects owned by a range of not-for-profit and for-profit entities.
The Furman brief does not report on why building owners are failing to pay their taxes today. It is reasonable to think that, at least as to multifamily buildings, it is because of operational issues more than because of fundamental problems relating to the profitability of real estate investments in New York City. This is supported by the fact that, when it comes to tax liens, “many if not most debts would be repaid before foreclosure.” (11) Thus, while this brief sheds light on this shadowy corner of the NYC real estate market, it does not seem (as the authors agree) that tax liens will open a path to increasing the stock of affordable housing in the City as it had in the 1980s and 1990s.