They Fell Behind on Their Property Taxes. So the Government Sold Their Homes—and Kept the Profits

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear 94-year-old Geraldine Tyler's case challenging home equity theft.

Geraldine Tyler is a 94-year-old woman spending the twilight of her life in retirement, as 94-year-olds typically do. But there isn’t much that’s typical about it.

Tyler has spent the last several years fighting the government from an assisted living facility after falling $2,300 behind on her property taxes. No one disputes that she owed a debt. What is in dispute is if the government acted constitutionally when, to collect that debt, it seized her home, sold it, and kept the profit.

If that sounds like robbery, it’s because, in some sense, it is. But it’s currently legal in at least 12 states across the country, so long as the government is doing the robbing.

In 2010, Tyler moved out of her Minneapolis condo, which she owned, in response to a series of local incidents that made her feel unsafe. That included a nearby shooting. She relocated to an apartment in a different neighborhood but struggled to afford both her rent and the property taxes on her condo, accruing that $2,300 sum.

The vast majority of what Tyler ended up owing, however, was not the property tax itself. It was the additional $13,000 in penalties, interests, and fees added by the government, upping her total to about $15,000—more than a 550 percent increase.

She didn’t have the $2,300, much less the $15,000. So the state foreclosed on the condo and sold it to satisfy the debt. That’s to be expected. What Tyler didn’t expect: After selling the property for $40,000, the government pocketed the remaining $25,000 instead of putting it back in Tyler’s hands. This despite no party claiming she owed anywhere near a $40,000 debt.

What the state took had little to do with the amount of debt itself. Had Tyler’s condo been valued at, say, $300,000, it would have proceeded the same way. The government would have just been quite a bit richer.

Which is what happened to Tawanda Hall of Oakland County, Michigan, when she, too, accrued a property tax debt. Hall, who lived in the house with her husband and children, set up a payment plan with the local authorities. She eventually fell $900 behind schedule. The total bill—after penalties, interests, and fees—came out to $22,642.

Not unlike Tyler, the government then seized the home, sold it to collect the debt, and kept the profit. Unlike Tyler, the Halls’ home was worth more than $300,000.

The state kept the change. It totaled more than $286,000.

What also sets Tyler and Hall apart is that they’ve had different fortunes in front of federal judges. But that may change for victims of home equity theft everywhere as one received notice on Friday that she will get to make her case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read the full article on Reason.