No one should be taxed out of their homes. It’s a sentiment that finds support across the political spectrum: homeowners, especially senior citizens and low-income families, should not lose their homes because of their property tax bills. Yet as a Washington Post investigation revealed this week, the DC city government’s use of “tax lien sales,” through which the government allows a small number of private agencies to act as debt collectors for unpaid property tax levies, has given “predatory” private investors license to foreclose on the homes of hundreds of city residents over the past five years. As a result, some low-income and elderly homeowners have been left with nowhere to live and with no equity in the homes many had owned outright.
The Post article profiles Bennie Coleman, a 76-year-old widower who ultimately lost his house after not paying a $134 property tax bill. When Coleman didn’t pay his bill, the city imposed a tax lien on the property, and then sold the lien to a private investor who was allowed to charge Coleman double-digit interest until the debt was paid. But the interest and penalties charged by this predatory investor pushed the total debt up to $5,000, and the investor foreclosed on the property.
Within a day of the Post report’s publication, Mayor Vincent Gray was vowing that “we cannot allow those kinds of things to happen again,” and City Council chair Jack Evans was preparing emergency legislation to limit private investors’ use of tax lien sales.
As the Post’s coverage makes clear, the cause of these foreclosures was not an out-of-control tax system, but rather the practice of allowing private debt collectors to charge exorbitant fees on top of the often minimal property tax debt. As it happens, Washington DC’s property tax system goes further than many states in minimizing property taxes on at-risk families and seniors: the city allows low-income families to claim a property tax credit of up to $750, and also allows low-income seniors to simply defer unaffordable property tax bills. Until recently, the tax credit was only available to families with incomes under $20,000 – an amount unchanged for 35 years – leaving out many families living at or below the federal poverty level. But just this summer, the DC City Council made significant improvements to the property tax credit, increasing income eligibility to $50,000 (about 200 percent of poverty for a family of four) and boosting the credit to $1,000.
In most states, there are only limited mechanisms in place to relieve unaffordable property tax bills for low-income taxpayers. And as an ITEP survey finds, virtually every state could take sensible steps to enact more generous low-income property tax relief programs.
The clear lesson of the abuses documented by the Post is that Washington DC's system for collecting unpaid property taxes must be overhauled. But a more basic lesson any state’s policymakers can learn from this harrowing tale is that it’s vital to design property tax rules in a way that don’t jeopardize low-income, fixed-income and senior homeowners through judicious use of “circuit breakers” and tax deferrals.