BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Central Brooklyn, a geographic area struggling with high unemployment and above-average poverty rates, is saddled every year with another distinction — high debt.
In the city's annual lien sale, the 36th Council District — representing Bed-Stuy and northern Crown Heights — trails only East New York and Brownsville for outstanding tax, water and sewer debt owed to the city.
And every year the city sells that debt to private companies as part of its annual lien sale.
"Central Brooklyn has consistently been overrepresented in the lien sale."
But over the years, residents, nonprofits and local politicians have developed an outreach system they say can drastically cut the number of troubled homes in time for the May 16 sale.
At the annual sale, the city takes homeowners' outstanding tax, water and sewer debt, as well as fines from the Department of Buildings and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, and sells it to private creditors.
Once in the hands of the creditors, additional fees and interest are tacked onto the debt, making it more difficult to pay off and often leading to foreclosure, Gross said.
"The city has a public interest in working with these homeowners," she said. "Private debt holders do not have that interest. Their interest is money."
The 36th City Council District includes 1,023 homes with liens for a total of about $21.7 million as of March 10, according to the city.
In Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights, community groups like the Brownstoners of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Coalition for the Improvement of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bridge Street Development Corporation go door to door to all 1,000 homes and hand out packets of information to homeowners on payment plans and outreach events.
"It's a neighbor-to-neighbor outreach program," said Tamecca Tillard, managing director of the Coalition for the Improvement of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
"[The packets] offer a document people will need to be prepared, so they can really leverage that opportunity to get into a tax-repayment plan."
There are any number of reasons why debt can go into lien, advocates say. Some homeowners, like veterans, senior citizens and the disabled, aren't aware there are exemptions they can take advantage of. Others simply fall behind on their mortgage amortization schedule.
CIBS and other groups help address those issues.
There are also trickier problems, like inheritance-related issues, Tillard said.
"In some scenarios we see households who have so many owners on a property, and everyone's like, 'It's not my problem,'" Tillard said.
One of the key reasons why central Brooklyn is so often near the top of the list is because of economic hardship in the community, said Emilio Dorcely, president and CEO of Bridge Street Development Corporation.
"The reality is Bed-Stuy still has a disproportionately high rate of unemployment," Dorcely said.
"What's happening is, especially since the economic downturn, you just have a significant number of people in the community who find themselves without the financial means to meet the payments."
Outreach about the tax lien sale may have already begun helping the situation. A list published in February showed about 200 more homes in lien, a sign that some people have already entered a payment plan with the city rather than allowing their debt to be sold in May.
For a community where home prices are skyrocketing even as wages remain low and unemployment remains high, the lien sale represents a challenge for longtime homeowners who want to hold on to property that has appreciated in value.
The outreach in central Brooklyn can help with that, Dorcely said. But he also hoped to keep the district off the top of the list in the future.
"That's something that continues to be a challenge," Dorcely said. "But the one positive outcome is that the outreach is very effective."