Two Cases On Opposite Coasts Show Extremes Of Risks, Rewards Through Municipal Auction Sales

NEW YORK (CBSNewsYork) – When it comes to auctions of municipal property, it appears you win some, you lose some.

Residents of an exclusive San Francisco neighborhood discovered their private street was purchased by out-of-towners, and next they could pay for parking in front of their own homes.

Presidio Terrace, a circular subdivision next to the Presidio Golf Course, was been sold at auction to a San Jose real estate couple Tina Lam and Michael Cheng for $90,100.

“I cannot afford a mansion here, but if I can own a street, I’m happy to own a street,” Lam told CBS SF. “First-generation immigrant here. I came here with just one suitcase.”

Thanks to 30 years of the homeowners association’s tax bill going to the wrong address, the street and sidewalks all wound up on the San Francisco Treasurer’s internet tax auction. The land had been flagged by the city for $994 in unpaid back taxes, penalties and interest.

“It’s very, very rare that anything that goes on the block is of real value,” said Amanda Fried of the San Francisco Treasurer’s office.

A similar case with a very different outcome happened in New York when Norma Parnell purchased a long, skinny piece of land in Far Rockaway through a municipal auction. The property had been listed as a “vacant lot” which Parnell won for $30,000.

Months later, she learned what New York City sold as a “vacant lot” was actually William Court, a 280 foot long street – technically a “privately owned access way.”

She said in 2010 the city offered to refund her $30,000, but she declined, because on her tax bill the city lists the property as “vacant land, zoned residential,” valued at $257,000.

“It’s been like hell, because I felt so stupid,” Parnell told CBS2.

Although she cannot build on the land, Parnell is still on the hook for about $1,000 per year in taxes.

In the San Francisco case, the auction winners may have a chance to make some revenue. When asked if the couple planned to charge residents for street parking, Lam said they were open to the possibly “because they are now parking on my land.”

Shocked Presidio Terrace homeowners are calling on the Board of Supervisors to negate the sale.

“Rich people don’t like to talk. They just want to use their money to sue everybody,” said Lam.

For her part, Lam was not concerned about the legitimacy of the deal.

“I’m pretty sure that the law is clear on my ownership, so I am comfortable that we will prevail,” she said.