Melvin Phillips remembers with great clarity the day in September 2011 he walked into a courtroom in the District of Columbia without knowing whether he would have a place to live when he walked out.
Phillips, a 63-year-old security manager and retired Army captain, still wrestled with demons left over from combat duty in Vietnam. Now he found himself in battle again, fighting to save the house that he and his brother Steven had lived in for decades.
In 2009, Melvin and Steven started falling behind on the property taxes on the home, though neither of them realized it. "We thought we were current," Melvin says today. But then came a tax lien on the house and, in July 2011, a sale of the tax lien to Elm Capital LLC of Jericho, N.Y., a debt-collection operation that sometimes snapped up more than 100 liens at a time at the D.C. tax auction. Elm Capital had moved to seize the Phillipses' home through foreclosure.
Melvin recalls thinking that, once in Judge Joseph Beshouri's courtroom, he and his brother might be able to work out some kind of payment plan for their tax debt of about $8,000. But the grim reality of the situation set in when an attorney for Elm Capital approached him and asked, "Are you prepared to pay $15,000 today?"
A growing crisis
Although most foreclosures are triggered by homeowners falling behind on their mortgage payments, the number of foreclosures tied to delinquent tax payments is rising, according to the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group. In what it brands "the other foreclosure crisis," the NCLC has estimated that U.S. property tax delinquencies may total $15 billion.
In 30 states and the District of Columbia, city or county governments have the legal authority to sell property-tax liens to private debt collectors, which can not only charge interest rates as high as 50 percent on the outstanding balances but also add legal fees and other costs they claim to incur in dealing with delinquent homeowners. If a homeowner doesn't settle up for the back taxes, penalties and fees within a certain period — from, say, six months in D.C. to up to four years in South Dakota — many jurisdictions allow the tax-lien holder to file suit to begin the foreclosure process to take ownership of the properties and resell them.
And, in some communities, it's not just property taxes that cause problems. Unpaid water, sewer and municipal fees lead to liens, which in turn can trigger foreclosures. And some municipalities add other fees — from "nuisance abatements" (when a city crew cuts weeds or mows overgrown grass, for example) to annual stormwater assessments — to property tax bills.
Some cities even off-load their tax debts to private firms for cash.
Last August, for example, the city of New Britain, Conn., agreed to sell all of its delinquent water, sewer and property taxes in a lump-sum deal with American Tax Funding Servicing, which paid the city with a wire transfer of $6.6 million.
Profit from pain
For all the heartaches that tax-lien sales have heaped on homeowners, they've proved a bonanza for some public officials.
Consider the case of Arthur Ferdinand, the long-time tax commissioner of Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta. In 2010, citing a state law that dates to the Great Depression, Ferdinand set up a controversial collection system that puts a 50-cent fee in his own pocket every time a tax lien is paid off — either by a private collection firm or by the homeowner.
The fees, an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found, pushed Ferdinand's annual earnings in 2012 to $383,000. Critics say that the arrangement is a blatant conflict of interest, but Ferdinand, who's the highest-paid elected official in Georgia, complains that "more time has been spent discussing my salary … than my collection rate and job performance."
In some states, tax-lien sales also seem to have been a breeding ground for crime and corruption.
In November 2013, a federal grand jury in Newark, N.J., indicted several individuals for conspiring, over more than a decade, to rig the bidding at municipal tax-lien auctions in the state by agreeing in advance which liens each of them would bid on — by flipping coins, drawing numbers out of a hat or drawing from a deck of cards. The long-running scheme forced many property owners to pay higher interest rates than if their tax liens had been purchased "in open and honest competition," prosecutors alleged.
Even some public officials have been caught in the Justice Department's net. Last year, a former county treasurer in Illinois was convicted of rigging tax-lien auctions over a four-year period in exchange for campaign contributions; he was fined $20,000, sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and stripped of his pension.
Next page: Help for homeowners in sight. »