close
close

Daily Hampshire Gazette – Massachusetts Senate supports ending ‘home theft’

Greenfield residents Joan Marie Jackson and Mitchell Speight testified online last year in favor of a bill that would give homeowners the equity remaining above their tax debt in the event of a tax lien foreclosure.
CONTRIBUTION/AL NORMAN

The Massachusetts State Senate has unanimously passed an amendment to its annual budget bill that would prohibit municipalities and private companies from seizing the entire equity value of a home in the event of a foreclosure due to a tax lien. This law, if enacted, would put an end to a practice that critics call “home theft.”

The U.S. Supreme Court last year in Tyler v. Hennepin County, Minnesota, declared unconstitutional the practice whereby municipalities or private tax lien companies can foreclose on a property for delinquent taxes and then sell it and keep the excess profit. Hampden County Superior Court Judge Michael Callan ruled April 18 that the expropriation of excess equity under Massachusetts law violates Article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution and the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Last month, the Joint Finance Committee voted for an equity theft bill (H 4624), which contains aspects of eight other bills, including one introduced by Sen. Jo Comerford, Democrat of Northampton. Comerford said she co-introduced the bill, S. 921, earlier this year on behalf of her Greenfield constituents, who she said have been victims of equity theft.

“The court made the famous statement 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's.' What this means is that cities and towns cannot get back all the equity they need to pay back taxes when they sell a house,” Comerford said.

“We needed to pass a law to end this practice in the Commonwealth because it affects the most vulnerable people in the Commonwealth. We are robbing them of the opportunity for housing security and also the transfer of wealth between generations.”

Comerford said the bill will be presented to a mediation committee of three House members and three senators in the coming weeks, with the amendment expected to be placed on Governor Maura Healey's desk in July along with the state budget for fiscal year 2025. Last year, Comerford joined Greenfield residents Joan Marie Jackson, Mitchell Speight and Al Norman on the Joint Committee on the Judiciary to testify in favor of the bill, S. 921.

Theater consultants Jackson and Speight paid off the mortgage on their Greenfield home in 2012. They testified they fell behind on their property taxes when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theater productions and they received a notice of termination from a law firm hired by the city in 2021. The letter, Jackson said, said they would be evicted by Western Housing Court if they did not vacate the premises by Feb. 2, 2022. Jackson said they received a second notice of termination within 14 days of the first notice.

According to Jackson's testimony, she and Speight presented a $20,000 cashier's check to the Greenfield tax collector, but it was bounced, so they hired an attorney.

“This partial payment would have significantly reduced the interest accruing on our outstanding obligations,” Jackson said in her testimony last year. “It was not until we hired an attorney that the City of Greenfield began to cooperate, and that was in December 2021. In addition to the taxes we owed, we had to pay our own attorney's bill to defend our rights.”

The Senate amendment, if passed by the governor, would also require the IRS to provide property owners with written notice of a foreclosure and explain in plain language the property owner's rights and responsibilities. It would also cut the current 16% interest rate on tax debts in half. It would also double the time property owners have to pay their tax debts from five to 10 years and allow tax collectors to forgive accrued interest on debts.

In an interview on Tuesday, Speight expressed his joy at the change in the law, but he pointed out that requiring municipalities to return excess equity from the sale of foreclosed homes would prevent them from engaging in “deliberate” and “unconstitutional” practices.

Speight also said he thought the rate cut was “fair” and that changing the time period to pay off the taxes from five to 10 years would give property owners some “breathing room.” He said he opposed parts of the change that would require property owners to request their excess equity in writing because he believes local governments should be responsible for paying property owners back what they owe.

The amendment also calls for an investigation into excess equity losses in foreclosures three years or more before the 2023 Tyler v. Hennepin County ruling. Speight said he believes the analysis must extend at least 10 years and examine the ownership rights of heirs of previously foreclosed property.

“This practice has existed for decades […] There are heirs of property that was illegally expropriated by municipalities. The heirs of these properties should be entitled to the surplus equity – this is a clear violation of property rights,” Speight said.

Comerford said that between 2014 and 2020, 250 homeowners in the state lost a total of $60 million in home equity because their homes were foreclosed on and sold due to tax debt. In an interview Tuesday morning, she added that the tax burden her constituents in Greenfield have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic has not only affected her.

“Mitch [and] Joan, their troubles began during the COVID pandemic, like the troubles of so many people. They ran up a tax bill during the pandemic, but they would have lost more than $100,000 in home equity had they not prevailed and won their fight to prevent Greenfield from selling their home for the taxes and keeping all the money,” Comerford said.

If adopted, the change will come into force on November 1, 2024.

Anthony Cammalleri can be reached at acammalleri@recorder.com or 413-930-4429.

Anna Harden

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *