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Stateside Podcast: What is 'home equity theft'?

a house with a foreclosure sign in front of it
BasicGov via Flickr
Flickr - http://bit.ly/1rFrzRK
Michigan ranks 8th in the nation for foreclosures

For almost a decade, Tawanda Hall and her late husband Prentiss raised their family in a home in Southfield. After some financial hardship, the Halls fell behind on property taxes, so they set up a payment plan with the Oakland County Treasurer's Office to pay back the debt.

A few months later Hall’s husband was outside doing yard work and found a notice from the county on the garage side door — a door Hall says the family hardly ever used. The notice was informing them that the payment plan was canceled.

Panicking, Hall went down to the County Treasurer's Office in Pontiac.

“I explained to them I don’t know what happened, is there anyway I can give you that money or all the money that we owe you completely and stop this,” Hall recalled.

She was told that nothing could be done.

The county sold the title of the home to a private company, which then went on to sell the house for over $300,000. Hall said that her family didn't receive any of this money.

Hall’s lawyer, Christina Martin of the Pacific Legal Foundation said that when a local government forecloses on a home this way, sold at a profit, and the government keeps more than the amount needed for taxes, penalties and interest collection, it is home equity theft.

“The counties [in Michigan] became fairly aggressive in how they started collecting property taxes and started using this money from these tax foreclosures to balance their budget,” Martin said. “Of course, some of the cities then figured out that if they started operating a particular way, they could also benefit ... and use this statutory way of transferring the property from a county to the city and then the city could use the money.”

The practice is still permitted in 12 states and Washington, D.C. It’s constitutionality being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court this term.

Hall said that she is now in another house, with a mortgage, but since her husband died, she is down to one income which makes things harder for her in “starting all over.”

Hall said that she hopes to see the Supreme Court rule in favor of people like her and thinks that they ultimately will.

“They take everything from you and you only owe them so much,” Hall said. “Hopefully they’ll work it out where this doesn’t happen to other families because it’s tragic and it’s unfair.”

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Dan Netter joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2022 and is a senior at Michigan State University studying Journalism and Social Relations & Policy.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.