Tawanda Hall is a Michigan-based nursing assistant and a mother of four. For nearly a decade she raised her family in a home she and her husband, Prentiss, purchased in the city of Southfield.
When they bought the house, it was damaged and in desperate need of repairs. Together, the family moved in and set to work turning the house into their home.
The new space was perfect for their family and gave them access to great schools. Not only was it big enough for their own household, but it also provided the room necessary for Tawanda’s ill mother-in-law to move in and receive the care she needed.
It was in this home where the family’s most precious memories were made. As Tawanda recalls:
“We’ve had several family dinners there, like Thanksgiving, Christmas. It had a real big family room, so we were able to hold a lot of people in one spot and be able to enjoy each other. The yard was beautiful. Lord, there was a lot of memories there.”
These cherished moments are just distant memories now that the family lost their home to the city’s “tax and take” scheme—what we call home equity theft—of which they were completely unaware.
Unfortunately, the Halls experienced financial difficulties that resulted in the couple falling behind on their property taxes. The Halls wanted to pay their debt and worked with their local government to get on a payment plan, making substantial payments on the debt.
The Oakland County treasurer ended the plan, however, with the tax debt standing at $22,642, and foreclosed on their home.
Tawanda was shocked.
She immediately ran down to the county treasurer’s office, prepared to pay the entire year, even if that meant taking out a loan to do so.
Again, the county told her that it was too late.
She couldn’t quite grasp how something like this could happen, or why it was allowed to happen. The whole thing felt so wrong.
She called whoever she could, looking for answers and solutions. She even called the mayor’s office. When no one was able, or willing, to help her, she and seven other former homeowners filed a lawsuit.
The Halls had fallen prey to the local government’s use of home equity theft—a tool governments use to take private property and sell that property without compensating the owners.
In the Halls’ case, the local government took from them not only the value of debt but every penny of equity they had built up in the house.
Instead of selling the house at public auction, paying off the debt, and returning the surplus (minus interest and penalties) to the homeowners, the city used the Halls’ money to enrich a private company, Southfield Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, LLC, managed by City of Southfield officials.
Through a series of legal transactions, the county took the Halls’ home (and the homes of seven other homeowners party to this case) and transferred it through the City of Southfield to the private company, which sold it for more than $300,000. The Halls received none of the difference between the debt they owed and the sales price.
This public-private arrangement was set up in 2016 through a city resolution that was supposed to prevent blight. Southfield took advantage of state law allowing cities a “right of first refusal” to buy foreclosed homes from the county for the cost of tax debt.
The Southfield Non-Profit Housing Corporation reimbursed the city for the amount of the tax debt, which then gave the property for $1 to the non-profit’s for-profit company to be sold.
The Detroit News reported that the company generated as much as $10 million from 138 properties from 2016 to 2019 after covering more than $2 million in tax debts to acquire the properties from the city. The former owners of these properties lost everything and received nothing from the surplus value of the properties taken from them.
One court has called the “troubling” scheme “shocking to the conscience” and one which “rightfully breeds distrust among the electorate.”
The Halls sued the city, county, non-profit, and company for violating the Takings Clause.
The Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment requires the government to give just compensation when they take an individual’s property. The value of the Halls’ property far exceeded the amount of taxes owed. Under the Constitution, governments are allowed to take only the amount that covers the missed payment.
Instead, the city violated the law of the land at the expense of the Halls’ property rights and well-being.
The devastation from the foreclosure was insurmountable and the corresponding stress it caused was unbearable.
From that point on, both Tawanda’s and her husband’s lives started to spiral.
Trapped under the weight of this great burden, the family began to struggle, and her husband’s health began to deteriorate.
In the midst of it all, the family still had to prepare to move out of the home where they had put down roots.
“I couldn’t even pack,” she said. “I just threw everything in bags and was just dragging it. It was one of the worst things ever.”
About six months after they were forced out of the home, under their severe financial stress, her husband fell while he was at work. He didn’t know he had been suffering from pneumonia and continued to work to provide for his family.
He suffered brain damage from the fall. He was eventually placed in hospice, given a feeding tube, and brought home for his final days, where Tawanda cared for him until he died.
She barely had time to grieve the loss of her husband before tragedy struck the family once more. Her brother died of an infection just days later.
Impossible as it felt at the time, she knew she had to keep going for her children.
“Like, any parent they want to see them do well. At some point, hopefully, we’ll be able to sit back and just relax.”
Searching for explanation as to why this was allowed to happen, she was horrified to discover that her family was not alone. She spoke with others who had found themselves in similar situations. Each person with a devastating story led her to another person with an equally devastating story.
As she began putting the pieces together, she realized that the city had a pattern of taking people’s property without just compensation.
“You always think something like this doesn’t happen, and then it happens. Then, you wonder, how do people get away with that?”
It was around this time that she learned about Pacific Legal Foundation and the work we do to end the practice of home equity theft. We are now helping Tawanda appeal her case and fight back against the unjust policy that has caused her family so much hardship.
Tawanda is still flabbergasted by the whole situation.
“How do you even sleep at night knowing that you’ve done this to several people and destroyed several families? I just don’t understand.”
After everything she has endured, Tawanda often feels she doesn’t have the energy to fight, but, as she says:
“You just keep on moving, and I’m just glad that there are people out there trying and listening, and I just hope and pray before I leave this earth that I can see that everyone gets something. It’s just horrible. I think about how many elderly people out here that just stayed in their houses for years, and retired in, and don’t have any income coming in.”
Winning this case would mean everything to Tawanda.
“Oh, my God. It would take so much stress off us to know that all the fighting, and hard work that me and my husband put in to trying to make a home was worth it.”
As the fight continues, the family is now living in Detroit while they try to rebuild their life. Tawanda still drives by their old home on occasion, where she often sees kids’ bikes out front—a painful reminder of the days when her own children laughed and played in that same yard.
There are at least 12 states that use home equity theft to seize your property, sell it, and leave you with nothing. But as long as this unjust practice continues, PLF will be there to help families, like the Halls, fight for their constitutional rights.