My Turn: For want of taxes and assistance, the house was lost




Published: 07-06-2024 8:25 PM


I currently live in an apartment in Greenfield. In June 2014, I bought a house. I inherited half of the house that I grew up in with my mother. We sold that house, and I bought the house in Greenfield.

Because of anxiety and depression, I didn’t look at a lot of my mail, so I was getting late notices for my taxes. I was aware that I was behind in my taxes, but I had no idea how bad it was until somebody, I don’t even know who it was, came to my door and said I owed $27,000 in back taxes.

I couldn’t imagine how my taxes owed had risen to that level. I made up a repayment schedule I considered was the minimum payments and the interest I owed, and I calculated what I thought was a feasible plan to pay all the money back, without any assistance, in three to five years.

But the tax collector rejected even considering that possibility. They said if I had contacted them a year earlier they would have agreed to a six-month plan to pay back the $27,000, which is completely preposterous. I’m disabled, and I live only on Social Security. Where in the world am I going get $27,000 from?

So the city threatened to foreclose. They said there’s a very high possibility I would get nothing back if my property went to auction because of the increase of lawyer fees and everything. I had no idea that I had more equity in my home, which I had purchased for $166,000, a home which was worth roughly six times what I owed in taxes, legal fees and other costs. But I felt I had been put in a corner with no clear way out.

So I made a quick decision to sell my house, which I had bought in 2014 for $166,000. I sold it to my next-door neighbor for $35,000. I can’t really explain why I was willing to sell a house for 16% what I paid for it a few years back, but I couldn’t think of any other way of paying back the city for the taxes I owed.

I couldn’t figure out how anyone in my situation was going to pay back what I owed. I was so confused about what had just happened to me, and the city gave me no guidance about what I could do to get out of the hole I was in. None of the legal papers made any sense to me. I understood what a foreclosure meant, and I was desperate. I thought if I sold my home myself, I might keep a little of the proceeds for my future needs.

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As it turns out, I had only $2,600 left, which I used to buy a trailer so I could at least have somewhere to live. But then I was told by the city that it’s illegal to live in a trailer. So at the end of this process, I just completely lost everything, and felt totally defeated and discouraged.

I had tried contacting legal assistance. I got absolutely zero help from any legal assistance. They completely rejected my payment plan idea of paying back the city. I agreed that I owed them the money. But what options did I really have?

So now I live on a rental assistance down the street, because I can’t afford the regular full rent on my Social Security check. I think what happens is that if you can’t figure out how the system works, and the paperwork is impossible to understand, you get the sense that you are fighting a hopeless battle, and the city makes it clear they will take your house sooner or later.

I don’t think this is the way it should be, or has to be. The city should be doing what it can to prevent homelessness, to help people who have no legal training, and may be struggling with health issues and have other bills to pay.

I brought my story to the City Council, so these elected officials could see what can happen when your finances are spinning out of control. I didn’t get to say anything about the new elderly/disabled tax fund, because my three minutes to speak had expired. I can say now that this new tax fund may give hope to someone in my circumstance who thinks that no one really cares.

Lewis Gordon lives in Greenfield.