My Turn: Equity theft is cruel injustice

By MICHAEL SEWARD

Published: 05-24-2023 4:21 PM

Imagine you owed someone $50 and they took the car you just paid off as payment of your debt. What would you think? Would you tolerate it or would you pursue charges for grand theft?

I trust it would be the latter, because the scenario is so wrong on the most basic level. Massachusetts is one of 11 states that allow cities and towns to behave in exactly such a manner. If a property owner owed $1,578.12 in unpaid real estate taxes, the city could take their property and sell it for $34,000. The debt is paid and a municipality gets an additional $32,421.88 — the equity stolen from the property owner.

When a property owner is behind on their real estate taxes, a tax taking if filed with that county’s registry of deeds. That is just the first required step before a city or town can actually foreclose on a property for non-payment of real estate taxes and subsequently sell it.

A city or town could still work with the property owner to prevent foreclosure, like setting up a payment plan. However, if a property owner is unable to get the taxes paid within a certain time frame, foreclosure inevitably follows. A more detailed look at the process can be found on Mass.gov.

In order to get a grasp for how prevalent equity theft is in Franklin County, I researched treasurer’s deeds that were preceded by a tax taking, from Jan. 1, 2020 to May 15, 2023. This allowed me to see for how much a property was sold by a municipality, when the property was sold, when the initial tax taking was filed, how much was owed at the time, and when the judgment of foreclosure was made.

I put the information in the accompanying chart below for the reader’s review and consideration. You’ll note that the example cited in the opening paragraph is a real example from Greenfield.

Readers will note from the chart that municipalities will sometimes hold onto a property for a significant period of time before selling it, a long-term “investment,” if you will. One tax taking dates back to 1959 with a sale in 2020, for example. And sometimes there is a long period of time between the initial tax taking and a judgment of foreclosure. And sometimes there is a large windfall for a municipality within a few years of the initial tax taking.

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The reader will note that some of the values are really low. Insight into that is beyond the scope of this piece. Keep in mind, this is just a snapshot during a pandemic that slowed things down.

Regardless of the dates and numbers, cities and towns of the commonwealth should not behave like an organized crime syndicate. We as citizens certainly should not be tolerating it, nor should we tolerate inaction to end equity theft by our elected officials.

If foreclosure is necessary, the difference between the sales price and the debt should be returned to the property owner. Further, the property should be placed on the real estate market to get the best price, instead being sold in a flash at auction to whomever shows up. It is reasonable to assume that if properties were sold on the market by a professional, the stolen equity would be much more than has been previously reported.

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. There is no other way to perceive equity theft as anything but cruel and unusual. It is a cruel injustice.

Michael Seward of Shelburne is a licensed real estate broker and owner of Michael Seward Real Estate.

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