AARP Saved Melvin Phillips' Home
AARP-affiliated lawyers helped protect homeowners — and change the law
En español | MY MOM PURCHASED a redbrick house in Southeast D.C. in 1957 and finished paying it off in 1977. That’s the house where my brother and I grew up, and it’s where we lived together again after Mom passed away in 2006. My brother, Steven, was making periodic payments for property taxes, but we had to keep checking to make sure we were current on them, because we weren’t receiving any tax bills. I remember one time I called the tax office and the person there told me, “Well, Mr. Phillips, if you’re not getting a bill, then don’t worry about it.”
It wasn’t until 2011 that we found out there was a problem, and a big one: The house was being sold for back taxes. The notice said we owed $8,000, but most of that was interest and fines. The original debt was for $2,800.
Prior to the court date, I did all this online reading, and we had a couple of law books at home, and I thought I had an idea of what I needed to say. I would explain to the judge that we hadn’t been getting tax bills, and we’d straighten the whole thing out. But when I got to the courtroom, it was packed with attorneys representing real estate clients, and I was by myself. These lawyers were all laughing and joking with one another — they were there every day.
When my case came up, the judge didn’t want to hear my story. He asked if I was prepared to make restitution that day for $16,000, an amount that included the attorneys’ fees for the company that had bought the tax lien. “No,” I said. I was absolutely shell-shocked. In D.C. at the time, if you lost your home due to back taxes, you also lost all the equity in the house. It’s not like they sold it to pay the taxes and gave you the rest to live on. The company that bought the $2,800 tax lien on our house would get all the money our mother had paid and all the appreciation since. And our home would just be gone.
As I walked out of the courtroom, in a daze, someone from Legal Counsel for the Elderly approached me. I’d never even heard of LCE. It’s a legal-advocacy affiliate of AARP for older people who live in D.C., where the association is headquartered. LCE sends lawyers to foreclosure court and tries to assist older people when it can.
It took two years, but with the help of LCE staff attorneys, we were able to save our home. They represented us in court and advised us to take out a reverse mortgage so we could pay the back taxes and fees. We also used some of the mortgage money to do some overdue repairs on the house. They really were lifesavers for us.
It turns out that what happened to my brother and me was happening to a lot of people in our city and across the country. Predators were taking advantage of the law to snap up paid-off properties if older people got behind on their taxes or confused about how much they owed. After LCE helped us, its attorneys worked to get the local laws changed, so what happened to us wouldn’t happen to anyone else. Among other changes, the law in D.C. now requires that a copy of every tax bill be mailed to the property, even if the owner receives mail somewhere else.
The stress of potentially losing our home was absolutely tremendous, especially when I thought about how hard my mother had worked for it. But now I feel no stress over that at all. When I’m in my living room, I can just grab a book — I’m kind of a book fanatic — and sit there reading, and when I look around, I can feel secure in knowing that the place is paid for and the taxes are up to date. And I can look at the picture of my mom and say, “We did the right thing. It all worked out.”
— Melvin Phillips, 67, has been a member since 2004
Social Security Lost and Found
Wanda Witter was owed thousands of dollars and AARP helped her recover it
FOR 20 YEARS, Wanda Witter, 82, lived in shelters and on the streets of Washington, D.C. “I would stand on a street corner two or three days a week, holding a cup,” she recalls.
Then, in 2016, a social worker approached her, hoping to get her safe housing somewhere, and Witter told her an incredible tale: The Social Security Administration owed her tens of thousands of dollars — and she had the correspondence to prove it. The social worker called the D.C. AARP affiliate Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and Witter showed a lawyer her suitcases full of paperwork. Then, Witter notes, “my life changed forever.” After reviewing Witter’s documents, the attorney quickly advocated for reinstatement of Witter’s benefits, which had been cut off but were accruing. Within days she received $999, and within three months, $100,000.
Today Witter lives in an efficiency apartment in D.C. “I have a roof over my head,” she says. “It feels good to be able to pay my bills.”
—Wanda Witter, 82, has been a member since 2017