Woman Sees Her Home Confiscated Over a Water Bill
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One raw day in early February, Vicki Valentine stood by helplessly as real estate investors snatched her West Baltimore home over what began with an unpaid city water bill of $362.
As snow threatened to fall, she watched a work crew hired by the new owners punch out the lock on her front door. A sheriff’s deputy was on the scene while Valentine and her teenage son piled whatever they could into a borrowed car.
Running out of time, Valentine scrambled to pack up clothing and mementos.The home had been her family’s for nearly three decades, and her father had paid off the mortgage in 1984. “It’s hard to say goodbye to this house,” she said. “It’s like someone forcing you out of something that belongs to you. I don’t get it.”
Valentine lost the two-story brick row home after the city sold her debt to investors through a contentious and byzantine legal process called a “tax sale.” This little-known type of foreclosure can enrich investors as growing numbers of property owners struggle to pay their bills.
These foreclosed homeowners are not the families making headlines for taking on mortgages they could ill afford. Families ensnared in the tax sale sometimes are unable to overcome relatively small debts owed to local tax collectors.
Rather than collect the overdue money they are owed, many local governments are selling tax liens. Buyers range from behemoths such as JPMorgan Chase & Co, and some regional banks and law firms, to small-fry investors lured by late-night television commercials promising quick riches. Investors generally bid in an auction for the right to collect delinquent taxes and other municipal debts on property owners, sometimes by paying only a few hundred dollars. When owners can’t pay, investors can pick up property at bargain prices.
It can be a good deal for everyone except the property owner. Selling the debts to investors can help governments efficiently ease budget woes without having the added expenses of debt collection, foreclosing and being a landlord.
Investors, meanwhile, can rake in hefty profits. That’s because they can tack on fees and steep interest rates, which can amount to 18 percent annually in Baltimore.
In Valentine’s case, legal fees and other charges climbed past $3,600 –nearly 10 times her original bill.
Investors purchased an estimated $30 billion of real estate tax debt held by governments across the countryin 2009, double the amount a year earlier, according to the Florida-based National Tax Lien Association. Altogether, 29 states and the District of Columbia can sell tax lien debt to investors.
Lien sales in Baltimore have nearly doubled since the housing bubble of 2006. On Monday, the city sold 12,689 liens – a probable record. Properties ranged from boarded-up shells and vacant lots to row homes in gentrified neighborhoods and some commercial buildings.
City records show that one in five of these liens on properties is for unpaid taxes or other municipal bills amounting to $1,000 or less. If Baltimore’s 2009 tax sale is any indication, hundreds will stem from delinquent water bills; there were 666 such liens last year.
Although the brisk tax lien trade thrives beneath the radar, largely unnoticed, it has occasionally drawn scrutiny from law enforcement authorities.
Some of Maryland’s most prominent tax sale investors have been swept up in a criminal investigation into bid rigging at the sales. Federal prosecutors allege that those investors agreed in advance which properties to bid at some auctions, improperly reducing the money earned by municipalities.
So far, Justice Department prosecutors have secured three convictions in the ongoing investigation. At a May 4 sentencing hearing for two of the defendants, a witness for the government was lawyer John Reiff, part-owner of the company that currently owns Valentine’s lien. He was not charged in the case.