Twelve states and the District of Columbia allow local governments and private investors to seize dramatically more than what is owed from homeowners who fall behind on property tax payments, according to a new report.
The practice, which Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) calls “home equity theft,” is documented in what the organization bills as the first national study aimed at exposing “the injustice of home equity theft through tax foreclosure.”
“Our findings are alarming,” PLF’s strategic research director, Angela Erickson, said in a statement.
“Home equity theft is robbing thousands of people of their homes and all the equity they’ve built. A system that allows governments and private investors to take more than what is owed creates a perverse incentive to work against the homeowner—not with the homeowner—to get the tax debt paid.”
Homeowners lost more than $777 million in life savings on more than 5,600 homes, based on their market value, in transactions that took place from 2014 to 2021. The true total is probably higher because statistics from New York state and some statistics from the other states studied were not available. On average, homeowners lost 86 percent of their equity, the study found.
Government entities, which often unload properties for a fraction of their market value, collected an estimated $26 million more than they were owed on about 1,300 homes. At the same time, private investors, who purchase tax liens, took in about $250 million more than what they were owed on about 2,600 homes.
Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, South Dakota, and the District of Columbia have laws on the books that let local governments and private investors “steal” substantial amounts of home equity from homeowners who are late on their property taxes, according to PLF.
Nine other states—Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, and Wisconsin—safeguard home equity in the foreclosure process but provide loopholes that permit governments or private entities to capture excess equity value that PLF says should belong to the homeowner.
These laws allow government officials and investors to take homes that have been in families for generations and leave some people homeless over tax debts that, in some cases, work out to less than 1 percent of their property’s value, according to PLF.
In one case, a county in Michigan seized a man’s house over an $8.41 underpayment, leaving him with nothing. The report notes that in the end, the homeowner prevailed when the Michigan Supreme Court determined that the county had acted unconstitutionally.
PLF takes the position that these so-called tax-and-take transactions violate the Fifth Amendment, which prevents the government from taking property without just compensation, and the Eighth Amendment, which bans excessive penalties.
Some government treasurers’ organizations, counties, and tax lien investors who “personally profit off the system in some of these states” are in favor of laws that lead to home equity theft, Christina Martin, a senior attorney at PLF, told The Epoch Times.
“Everybody else seems to be against it—groups on the left, right, [and] center,” she said.
“The vast majority of people seem to be against this. And most people actually have no idea this is even happening.”
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an alliance of conservative lawmakers, is opposed to home equity theft. Laws should be changed to require surplus profits to be returned to a home’s prior owner after a “tax lien investor or county collects what it is due and any other debts or levies on the property are paid,” ALEC says.
The Epoch Times reached out to the Government Finance Officers Association, the National Governors Association, and the National Conference of State Legislatures for comment but had not received a reply from any of the three organizations as of press time.
PLF currently has three home equity theft-related petitions from homeowners pending before the Supreme Court, all of which are scheduled to be considered by the justices on Jan. 6, 2023.
Two are from Nebraska. One petition (pdf) is Fair v. Continental Resources, court file 22-160, and the other (pdf) is Nieveen v. Tax 106, court file 22-237. A petition (pdf), Tyler v. Hennepin County, court file 22-166, is from Minnesota.