DARTMOUTH — In a nondescript town hall meeting room, Dartmouth treasurer Gregory Barnes recently held an auction to drum up some fast money. On the block: taxes owed by 43 delinquent property owners.
With the official “going once, going twice,” a Boston-based investment company bid $316,000 to acquire the tax liens and the right to charge 16 percent interest on them. The firm can also move to seize the properties.
Dartmouth and an increasing number of cash-strapped cities and towns around Massachusetts and the United States are turning to for-profit companies to pursue delinquent property owners — prompting concern among consumer advocates that vulnerable residents are being hit with astronomical fees and sometimes losing their homes in the process.
The effects of these sales are now being seen in Massachusetts Land Court. A New England Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of court records found 1,100 cases filed since 2012 by a handful of private companies seeking to foreclose on delinquent owners whose tax liens they purchased from municipalities. While the majority of owners turn up to pay their back taxes, a small fraction end up losing their homes or properties for debts that were originally as small as a few hundred dollars, interviews and data show.
Consumer and housing advocates say they are seeing an increasing stream of low-income elderly residents in their offices confused about threatening letters and a spike in debt. While towns have the legal power to seize homes in tax default and charge interest, consumer advocates say for-profit companies have more incentive to foreclose and impose high interest rates. The Boston-based National Consumer Law Center has been pushing reform for several years — urging states to better notify residents about the risks of not paying taxes and to reconsider laws that allow huge profits for companies paying relatively small sums for tax debts.
“I can’t think of anything else in the law that can be such a real loss to a property owner for something as little as a couple of thousand dollars owed,’’ said John Rao, a National Consumer Law Center attorney. “There is no reason why the laws need to be structured so that the investor gets the windfall.”
The practice has gained the attention of the state’s attorney general. Spokesman Brad Puffer said that regulators are looking at the “extent and nature of these practices in Massachusetts.” And, he said, “It is critical that these practices not unfairly enrich private debt collectors or lead to an increase in foreclosure for struggling families.”
Massachusetts — and 28 other states, plus Washington, D.C. — allow the sale of tax liens to private investors, according to the Florida-based nonprofit National Tax Lien Association. Brad Westover, the association’s executive director, defends the process and said in a prepared statement that the industry is “highly regulated,” with Massachusetts among the strictest, and shouldn’t be hindered because a “small percentage of homeowners’’ lose their homes.
Most people pay their property taxes. But a small percentage of defaults — 3 percent nationwide, or about $14 billion in unpaid taxes — create a “huge stress” for municipalities that rely on taxes to fund schools, fire and police departments, and road repairs, according to the tax lien association.
“Current tax-paying homeowners shouldn’t be penalized with the possibility of higher property taxes because others won’t pay theirs,” Westover wrote.
But even municipal officials in Massachusetts disagree about the value and ethics of selling tax liens to third parties. The City of Boston, for example, keeps tax liens in-house. David Sweeney, Boston’s chief financial officer, said otherwise the city “loses all control over the fate of the properties.”
Other municipalities, like Worcester, Lawrence, and Lowell — all hard hit by the nation’s foreclosure crisis and economic recession — have unloaded hundreds of delinquent debts to private investors since 2008 in an effort to raise funds quickly for depleted city coffers, interviews and public records show.
This has led to a “tidal wave of tax title problems,” particularly among low-income elderly residents, said Len Raymond, executive director of the Lowell-based nonprofit Homeowner Options for Massachusetts Elders. Seniors, he said, are often beset with mounting financial pressures and struggle to cover their taxes, sometimes unaware of the consequences of ignoring tax bills. The agency is helping about 25 elderly people at risk of losing their homes because of tax liens.
“Elders are not in the position to pay off these kind of debts,’’ he said. “There should be a cut or a moratorium dealing with seniors.”
Among troubled homeowners are people like Colin Roache, a 78-year-old barbershop owner who was stunned in October to learn that a private New Jersey-based company, Tower DBW, took the title to his three-family house after purchasing a tax lien on the home in 2011 for $2,768.61. The company, records show, paid his taxes for four years before gaining the title in late September in Land Court. Now, Roache says, the company has offered to let him regain possession of his house, valued at $161,000, if he pays more than $22,000 to cover his debt, interest, and fees. A Tower attorney declined to comment.
“It’s unfair for people to target your place like that,’’ says Roache, a Jamaican native who in August secured a mortgage modification that had given him hope his financial problems had been solved. “I had no idea it would come to this.”
For more information and documents, go to The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (www.necir.org), an independent nonprofit news outlet at Boston University and WGBH TV/radio. NECIR interns Ryan Towey and Paula Sokolska contributed to this report.