THERESA BOLLECH was in tears on Oct. 10, 2012, as she testified before a D.C. Council committee about the “living hell” her family went through after a lien placed on their home was sold at tax auction and they were threatened with foreclosure.
“Totally disrespected, treated unprofessionally, laughed at, mocked,” she said of her dealings with the District’s Office of Tax and Revenue. Also testifying that day were advocates pressing for reforms, the need for which had earlier been spelled out in a letter hand-delivered to city officials.
So why was it only after Post reporters embarrassed the city with damning evidence of abuses in the program that officials reacted with outrage? More important: Why are they talking about hurried fixes to the decades-old system of tax lien sales? They should be scrapping this predatory process and following the lead of other jurisdictions that help keep people in their homes.
A 10-month investigation by Debbie Cenziper, Michael Sallah and Steven Rich examined how the District’s privatization of delinquent tax collections has enriched out-of-town investors at the expense of vulnerable homeowners. The Post uncovered cases of homes being sold over trifling tax bills, likely collusion by corporate lien buyers and a high error rate in determining who actually is delinquent in paying taxes. Spotlighted in the resulting articles were heart-wrenching cases of elderly people, some suffering from dementia, losing all equity and forced from their homes because of small, unpaid property bills. Many of those affected, the investigative team found, live in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Officials with the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, which oversees the tax office, take issue with the stories. They said that many of the cases, certainly the most egregious, go back years and that fixes have been put in place. Advocates deny that problems are a thing of the past; after all, 1,200 homes currently are threatened with foreclosure by tax lien investors. Even if some of the more egregious practices have been reformed, something is fundamentally flawed with a system that outsources decisions about keeping people in their homes to private investors solely focused on profit. Other places, such as Fairfax County, collect money in-house, allowing local government to control the process and offer protections including repayment plans. Property is sold for taxes due only as a last resort.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who chaired the 2012 hearing and thanked Ms. Bollech for her testimony, had introduced a bill to place curbs on the sales; he now promises to push those curbs in emergency legislation. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), whose spokesman said he never saw the letter from advocates due to mishandling by his aides, has promised action in the way of some kind of ill-defined moratorium.
What’s really needed is a tax office that residents know they can trust. It’s pretty clear that this office — made notorious by the epic embezzlement of Harriette Walters — has lingering issues that still must be addressed. The city’s chief financial officer, as the mayor has been quick to point out in the face of the negative publicity, is independent, but the council nonetheless could provide vigorous oversight and the mayor could use his office to look out for residents’ interests. As The Post’s stories poignantly demonstrated, both have fallen short.