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The Takeaway: Local Governments Seize Homes Over Tiny Tax Debts


Owing as little as $400 in unpaid property taxes has led some American homeowners to lose their homes, according to a report released today by the National Consumer Law Center.

"Homeowners throughout the nation, particularly elderly and people with cognitive challenges, have lost or stand to lose family homes along with long-term equity which may represent their sole savings and security for retirement," said attorney and report author John Rao.

The group urges states to reform property tax laws to "encourage repayment rather than property loss."

As it stands, state governments can auction off the legal claims (called liens) to homes with delinquent taxes to investors, including major banks and professional house flippers. Owners have a limited time to buy back their houses by paying investors the price of the lien, plus interest and fees. But the interest and fees are often excessive, and those who can't cover all the costs get the boot.

AARP Senior Attorney Jean Constatine-Davis notes that when it comes to unpaid property taxes, the root of the problem is rarely explored.

Older homeowner's limitations often affect not only their ability to handle their financial affairs but also impact the maintenance of the property, sometimes triggering higher and unaffordable 'blight' assessments," she said.

Programs aimed at reaching out to these homeowners, qualifying them for lower rates and establishing payment plans "will be increasingly important as our population ages," she added.

Quick Hits: 

  • Only one-third of Americans are upwardly mobile. A new study on "economic mobility across generations" shows that Americans now have a much harder time moving between income classes than 40 years ago. Forty-three percent of those raised in low-income houses were likely to be low-income as adults, while 40 percent of kids from the highest-earning families were likely to be high-earners as well.
  • Assisted living at 53. Hit by young onset Parkinson's disease, writer Martin Bayne, now 62, moved into an assisted living facility eight years ago. In a Washington Post essay, he explores how residents at the first facility he lived "didn't have a voice."
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