Schenectady County

Debt-firm moves ire surprised Schenectady homeowners

Amid miscommunication and confusion, city residents are losing their longtime homes to a private deb

Amid miscommunication and confusion, city residents are losing their longtime homes to a private debt collector that was once hired to make it easier for residents to pay delinquent tax bills.

The collector, American Tax Funding, has the authority to foreclose if people don’t pay their back bills. But for some residents, paying the bill hasn’t helped.

One man paid the $900 ATF said he owed, but ATF foreclosed anyway.

Another homeowner faithfully kept up a $300-per-month payment plan, paying back thousands more than she originally had owed. That didn’t protect her house from foreclosure.

A couple bought a foreclosed house and began to fix it up, only to be foreclosed upon themselves six months later — even though they were up to date on all their payments.

Attorney Anthony Pietrafesa, who is representing several Schenectady residents against ATF, is convinced the company simply doesn’t care about the human side of their business anymore.

“These people just run right over people,” he said.

ATF argues the opposite has happened: People have stopped caring about their houses.

“With the exception of terrible hardship, there’s a lot of slumlords and a lot of investors who have basically decided it’s better to rent and not pay taxes and just wait for the end,” said ATF Vice President Tadgh Macaulay. “With the economy, people just give up. People who bought property as investments basically left.”

ATF has dealt with many landlords, but many of the properties the company is foreclosing upon now are owned by longtime residents, according to court filings. And those are the people who are running into trouble.

Good idea at the time

When the city decided in 2004 to sell its delinquent tax liens to ATF, ATF promised to treat Schenectadians gently. The city was low on cash, struggling to make payroll, and needed its taxes paid on time. But it didn’t have the money to hire full-time tax collectors, and contracting with ATF seemed to be the solution.

ATF promised to offer payment plans. They would work with people in ways that Schenectady couldn’t, because of the city’s reduced workforce and limited billing software. And when it came to owners living in their home, ATF wouldn’t rush to foreclosure. The city signed a contract specifically stating that and announced the change triumphantly.

But the relationship deteriorated as ATF offered less and less money to buy the city’s liens every year. Last year the city stopped selling liens to ATF. Now Schenectady is collecting the most recent delinquent taxes without outside help or interference.

And the gloves have come off at ATF’s headquarters.

Resident James Reed lost his house to ATF last month after paying his mortgage for 38 years, and his taxes for 35 years.

He refinanced his mortgage when interest rates dropped, not realizing the new mortgage-holder didn’t offer an escrow account, in which money for taxes is included in monthly payments and paid out at tax time. Reed thought the drop in his mortgage payment was entirely due to the refinancing and never realized he wasn’t paying his taxes, he said.

Three years later, he learned otherwise when ATF sent him a foreclosure notice.

He expected to sign up for a payment plan, because much had been made of those plans when the city first contracted with ATF. But the company told him to pay up at once or get out.

“They don’t want to work with me at all,” he said.

Macaulay disagreed, saying that ATF doesn’t want to foreclose. “We do a lot of payment plans,” he said.

The amount Reed owed was staggering. He had accrued about $20,000 in back taxes, he said. ATF’s total bill, after interest and fees, was $40,000.

Macaulay defended ATF’s high interest rate, which was approved by the Schenectady City Council.

“We don’t want the property. We’re in the business of earning a return on our investment,” he said.

Reed was stunned by how much he owed. He called the city to ask why he hadn’t gotten any tax bills. City officials reassured him they would work it out, he said. But they couldn’t help once they learned his liens had been sold to ATF.

ATF officials arrived three weeks ago with a sheriff’s deputy and evicted Reed’s family, including his disabled sister-in-law. As they were being hurried out of the house, with his sister-in-law using a walker, she fell on the lawn. She’s been in a nursing home ever since.

“I don’t know if she’ll ever be right again,” Reed said.

The home had been set up to accommodate her, with rails and grab bars on the walls throughout to keep her from falling. The Reeds’ new apartment has none of those features, and they worry they will never be able to move her out of the nursing home.

“They were just moving us too fast, and she fell on the lawn,” he said. “It seemed they were in a big hurry.”

But since then, ATF has called him — to offer his house back. They want to sell it to him for $40,000.

“But my credit is shot because of being kicked out of the house. I can’t get no loan,” he said.

Reed said his priest is trying to arrange for someone to back the loan for him. So far, he hasn’t found any takers.

Numbers game

ATF is having trouble, too. Macaulay said few people buy the houses the company takes in foreclosure because they are too expensive. That’s because in 95 percent of ATF’s cases, he said, the total debt is higher than the value of the property. Because of that, he said ATF never makes a profit in a foreclosure sale.

“Foreclosure is a losing proposition,” he said. “We are always in the red. We’ve lost a lot of money in Schenectady.”

It costs $5,000 to foreclose, he said. After ATF sells the property, it must also pay the city for any taxes owed in recent years, when liens were not sold to ATF. Typically, that’s $12,000 to $20,000, Macaulay said.

On average, owners also owe $12,000 to $20,000 to ATF. That’s a total of up to $40,000 — but the city’s average house is assessed at a value of $100,000. Reed’s house has been listed on the market at $60,000, well above the amount he owed.

After he was questioned on specific figures, he admitted ATF “sometimes” manages to make a profit on a foreclosure sale. He could not explain why the company would pursue foreclosures aggressively if they are a money-losing proposition, but said he’s convinced most delinquent taxpayers in Schenectady have no intention of ever paying their bill.

In some of the cases involving ATF, foreclosure seems to be a matter of miscommunication. Attorney Pietrafesa said one of his clients called ATF when he got a letter notifying him he owed taxes.

“He called them up and said, ‘How much do I owe?’ They said $900. He paid it,” Pietrafesa said. “The next thing you know, he got sued [for foreclosure].”

ATF began foreclosure proceedings because he hadn’t paid a second bill they had never mentioned, Pietrafesa said. The client hired Pietrafesa to get to the bottom of the matter and pay the bill.

“We’ll be able to settle it. We’re not talking about a lot of money. We’re talking under $10,000,” Pietrafesa said.

In another case, a couple bought a house on Ninth Avenue in a foreclosure sale by TrustCo Bank. Six months later, as they were working on their renovations, a man walked up the driveway and announced the house was now his.

ATF had foreclosed on it after TrustCo’s sale.

Pietrafesa said they may have no recourse. As the owners, they were responsible for the tax debt, even though they did not know about it.

But his client with the second tax bill has the money to pay — he just can’t get ATF to take his money.

Courting confusion

Pietrafesa said each court case he has with ATF goes like this: He tells the judge he’s ready to settle. ATF sends a local attorney to handle the case, but he’s not authorized to approve any settlement.

“They say, ‘I have a phone number [to get authorization] and oh, the guy isn’t available.”

So each court date ends with an adjournment.

Pietrafesa has tried to get judges to demand ATF send a company attorney to the hearings, arguing it isn’t unreasonable since ATF has so many foreclosures here. He has also offered to take the case to Florida, where ATF is headquartered, so he can settle with someone actually authorized to agree.

Judges tell him they can’t require ATF to send someone, and ATF has refused to accept his offer of moving the proceeding to Florida.

Pietrafesa’s family lives near ATF’s headquarters, which is why he’s willing to go there.

“I’d be particularly happy to go in February,” he said.

So far, no dice.

The sticking point in the court settlements may be that Pietrafesa objects to various fees ATF includes in the debt-payoff amount. Among others, his clients have been charged $9,000 in attorney fees before their case goes into foreclosure.

That fee was included in their pre-foreclosure payoff amount, he said.

It doesn’t stand up in court.

“The judges have only been giving $1,900 in attorneys fees, so for them to ask for more than they know the judges will allow, I think is deceitful,” he said.

Many city residents have paid it while paying off their debt to ATF. But some have watched their debt balloon while they thought they were paying ATF off.

Linda Hart paid more than $15,000 to ATF through a payment plan set up after she missed three years of taxes after she lost her job.

She owed less than $12,000 originally. But after paying $300 a month for years, she calculated she had nearly paid it off. She called ATF for a final payoff amount. They told her she owed $19,000 more.

It turned out her monthly payment was less than the accrued monthly interest. Every month, she was falling further behind.

Pietrafesa questioned whether that payment plan was ethical — or even legal.

“The goal was to get people on a payment plan that the city couldn’t offer. Did those payments work? Could people make those payments while also paying their current taxes?” he asked.

He noted Hart agreed to the payment plan without an attorney or a judge to oversee a contract that could lead to her losing her house.

“Those things never come before a judge,” he said. “I think she has overpaid.”

Hart is still hoping to save her house, which was passed down to her. She has no mortgage on it and has cultivated a garden of wildflowers that almost completely hides her house from the street. She lives alongside busy Balltown Road, but from her front door, she can see only wilderness.

She tears up at the thought of losing her haven.

For now, her case is in limbo. Because she has continued to not pay her taxes, the city began foreclosure proceedings last year. Then the City Council decided to postpone foreclosure in any case that involved an owner-occupant. At the same time, ATF counter-filed to stop the city from foreclosing on any cases in which ATF was also trying to foreclose.

Until that lawsuit is resolved, no one can foreclose on her property.

So for now, she’s trying to enjoy her grotto for as long as she can.

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