Sixty-seven-year-old Deborah Foss has spent the winter living out of her car in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
If you’ve ever experienced a Massachusetts winter, you know it has the power to chill you to the bone. It’s not ideal weather for anyone to endure, but imagine spending the coldest months of the year camped out in a mall parking lot.
In January, Deborah and her wife Christine were forced to move out of their home after the City of New Bedford took the property in a predatory tax foreclosure scheme known as home equity theft.
Home equity theft allows governments to take an individual’s property over an unpaid tax bill, sell the home to private investors, and then keep the profits—ALL the profits. The homeowners are left with nothing.
Rendered homeless with nowhere else to go, the couple was left in dire straits.
Deborah never planned to fall behind on her tax payments—there wasn’t some grand scheme to pull a fast one on city hall. But life often throws us curveballs for which we are unprepared. And as a 67-year-old living on a fixed income and suffering from multiple health issues, including chronic lymphocytic leukemia, COPD, and neuropathy, she found herself in a bind.
Deborah had picked this home to avoid financial problems. She had sold her childhood home, which she inherited upon her mother’s passing, to improve her financial situation. She took the proceeds from the sale, and her lifesavings, to pay $168,500 cash for a more-affordable two-unit home.
The plan was for Deborah and her wife to move into the downstairs unit while family members rented the upstairs portion of the property. The rent payments would provide her with extra income, and because the home was cheaper than her mother’s had been, this seemed like an ideal solution to get her finances back on track.
But the new home needed a lot of repairs, and the costs soon became more than she had anticipated.
And then her upstairs tenant stopped paying rent.
Adding to the existing obstacles, it was around this time that she had her purse stolen during a traumatic carjacking incident. Deborah was dragged out of her car and beaten before the thief made off with a significant amount of money.
As can be expected, the incident caused her great distress. For a long time, she couldn’t even sit in her car without being flooded with the horrific memory of the altercation. Now, she lives in her car, where she has to face those recollections on a regular basis.
Deborah paid as much of her 2016 property taxes as she could, but that wasn’t enough for the city. They began the process of a “tax taking” on her home on December 16, 2016, over a $3,748 debt, which included $450 in interest and other fees.
She tried to set up a payment plan, but she was denied. This didn’t seem to make any sense: If the city wanted their money, why wouldn’t they be willing to work out a payment plan? Instead, they threw complicated legal jargon at her, which only brought more confusion and less clarity about what was going on.
As it turns out, the city had sold its tax lien to a private investment company, Tallage Davis, LLC.
New Bedford, like many Massachusetts municipalities, often sells its tax liens to Tallage for the amount of the unpaid debt. Tallage then files a foreclosure action on the property, and if the owner fails to pay his debt fast enough, it then sells those homes and makes windfall profits at the expense of property owners who often had no idea they could lose their home and life savings in the first place.
The city sold Deborah’s tax lien to Tallage during the summer of 2018. With interest and fees, the total purchase of the unpaid debt cost Tallage $9,626.
Days after securing the lien, Tallage began the process of foreclosure in land court. Deborah had no idea this was happening. Nine months later, the land court mailed a notice to Deborah, informing her that she no longer owned her home.
But the notice didn’t reach Deborah. The certified mail was returned as unsuccessful. Two months later, she finally received the grim news.
Deborah filed a letter asking the court for a payment plan. She also asked for a 6-to-12-month grace period to sell the property, which had earned about $204,000 in equity, and pay the full debt.
As she explained to the court, this was “[a]ll the money I have in this life that I worked all my life for.”
Today, the property is worth about $370,900, according to Zillow.
Her pleas fell on deaf ears. The land court ultimately granted the title to Tallage, and with it, all the money Deborah had left in this world.
It would take another year for Tallage to begin the official process of eviction.
During that time, Deborah had no idea that the firm already owned her home.
The whole process felt like some horrific movie plot.
On January 2 of this year, she got a notice in the mail telling her she had 30 days to move out. She was offered a pitiful sum to relocate, all the while being condescendingly told that Tallage was “being so good to her,” which was laughable to Deborah.
To say Deborah was scared of what the future held was an understatement. She had a home full of memories to pack, nowhere to go, and three cats she didn’t want to leave behind.
Less than a month later, Deborah and her roommates were thrown out of their home. The city had just been hit with a snowstorm and Deborah did her best to get the last of her stuff packed and stored. Adding insult to injury, she was also still recovering from COVID and double pneumonia that had hospitalized her in January.
The situation didn’t feel real.
“How can somebody just steal your house like that? I mean, I bought it and I tried, I tried to make arrangements to pay for it.”
What happened to her seemed criminal. According to the Constitution, it is.
Within the text of the Fifth Amendment, you’ll find something called the “Takings Clause.” The Takings Clause protects individuals from having their property stolen by the government without just compensation.
There is no denying that Deborah had fallen behind on her tax payments and that the debt needed to be paid. But under the Takings Clause, the government is forbidden from keeping more than it is owed. By selling the lien to Tallage and robbing Deborah of all the equity, the City of New Bedford disregarded the Fifth Amendment.
In her late 60s, in the throes of severe illnesses, Deborah was tossed out into the cold and into a mall parking lot while she tries to figure out her next move.
When asked how she is holding up, she said:
“Not good. Trying. Smile, laugh. Wonder what tomorrow’s going to bring.”
Her father taught her to be tough, and her mother taught her to trust in God to get through the difficult times. She remembers being told, “He never gives you more than you can bear.” But as she lamented, “It’s getting that close. It’s just so hard right now.”
Like many others who have fallen prey to home equity theft, Deborah had no idea she could fight back. When she received the 30-day eviction notice, she assumed she had reached the end of the line.
But in that moment of utter hopelessness, a light shone through the darkness when she realized the fight wasn’t over—it was just beginning.
Like her father, Deborah is proud, and she wanted to get through this on her own. Finally, she had to admit that she needed help and called her son to explain the severity of her situation.
After scouring the internet trying to find out how someone could legally steal a home in Massachusetts, her son came across Pacific Legal Foundation and the work we do in fighting back against home equity theft.
He told Deborah to write a letter to us right away. We have joined the battle and will be in her corner making sure she gets what she is owed.
The journey has already been agonizing, but there is hope.
Like Deborah, Massachusetts residents Neil and Mark Mucciaccio also inherited their childhood home after their parents passed. A series of unfortunate health problems hit their family and they fell upon hard times that rendered them unable to pay their property taxes.
The local government sold the home to Tallage, and the brothers lost their home and all their memories.
PLF helped the brothers fight back and, with that lawsuit pending, Tallage reached an agreement allowing the family to pay their debt and reclaim title to the home.
While Deborah waits, she offers advice for others in her situation: “Don’t settle. Fight them. But don’t wait like I did, because I didn’t know any better. My son did. He Googled it. Thank God. But just fight it because they have to start somewhere.”
Deborah misses her home. She misses her children coming over and filling her home with laughter, and she misses her flowers.
“Happiness to me was planting my box flowers and my flowers out front and making it look really nice out front. Even though it needs paint, it needs work, it still made it look nice and it made me feel good, my roses, all that.”
When Tallage and the City of New Bedford hear the name “Pacific Legal Foundation,” they should know that justice is on the way.
While Tallage’s businesses model is reprehensible at best, they are allowed to do what they do only because of the state law that authorizes home equity theft.
Deborah’s family has launched a GoFundMe to help her secure housing. If you’d like to donate directly to Deborah, visit her GoFundMe page.