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Woman Sees Her Home Confiscated Over a Water Bill

Vicki 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."

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As his condition worsened, he tended to hide bills from the family. (City records confirm that Turner often fell behind in meeting his obligations during the final years of his life and nearly wound up in the tax sale as early as 2000 over unpaid water bills and property taxes.)

When her father died in 2003, Valentine took over the home and stayed there with her son, Dimitrian, now 17. She said she fell into a serious depression in the wake of her father’s deteriorating health and death, and was unable to work or pay her bills on time. She has worked only sporadically since his death.Though she made partial payments on the water and sewer account in 2006, she acknowledges her failure to pay a bill of $462.28 in full. She went down to city hall and paid $100, but never took care of the balance.

When the deadline passed for paying up, the city added 2005-2006 property taxes of $287.92, interest and city tax-sale processing charges. That brought the total she owed to $710.57, according to city records.

The City of Baltimore washed its hands of Valentine’s debt in May 2006 when it sold the lien to Sunrise Atlantic LLC, an arm of the BankAtlantic in Fort Lauderdale. The Florida bank has bid on tax liens in a range of states, from Florida to Illinois, though it has largely sold off its Maryland lien portfolio and is not implicated in the bid-rigging case. BankAtlantic did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Unlike mortgage foreclosures initiated by banks, there’s no appealing a tax sale debt once it is sold off; a property owner has no option other than to abide by the investors’ terms and pay the fees. The lien holders also have little incentive to be flexible about repayment terms.

Maryland law gives property owners six months to redeem a tax lien with only minimal added costs. But if they don’t pay by then, lien holders can sue to seize the property and stick the homeowner with a slew of fees, including legal bills incurred in taking the matter to court. Sunrise Atlantic filed such a case on Valentine’s home in Baltimore City Circuit Court in December 2006, records show.

More than a year later, the court awarded the property to Sunrise Atlantic.

At that point, Valentine sent a handwritten letter to the court, begging for mercy and more time to repay.

In the letter, dated Feb. 9, 2008, Valentine described being unable to work because of depression and other problems. “For now, this is the roof over my son and my head. I am trying to get the money together to catch up on my delinquent bills.” She added: “Please allow more time to pay all bills connected with the foreclosure of said property.”

But the longer she waited and the more she protested, the more legal fees and other charges she incurred.

In 2008, Baltimore attorney Anthony De Laurentis, who represented Sunrise Atlantic, submitted  itemized charges to the court: $305.91 in interest on the lien; a $1,500 bill for responding to Valentine’s requests to cut the fees and other legal work; more than $1,000 in assorted expenses, including $325 for a title search of the property and $79 for photocopies, according to court records. 

The price list passed muster with a judge, who on Sept. 19, 2008 ordered that Valentine pay $3,603.41 – or forfeit her property.

She asked for another hearing, which delayed the process for more than a year.

While the case dragged on, the Florida bank started divesting its tax lien certificates from Maryland, eventually transferring the lien on Valentine’s home to a firm called Montego Bay Properties. Part of the firm is owned by a trust set up to benefit members of the family of lawyer De Laurentis. Reiff, one of De Laurentis’ law partners, also owns part of the firm.

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