Greenfield residents, senator advocate for home equity bill

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 05-09-2023 6:11 PM

BOSTON — At least three Greenfield residents and the state senator representing 25 communities in Hampshire, Franklin and Worcester counties have submitted testimony to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary to express support for a bill that would prohibit what critics have dubbed “home equity theft.”

Joan Marie Jackson, Mitchell Speight and Al Norman joined state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, in providing statements to the committee on Tuesday to advocate for members’ recommendation of Comerford’s bill, S. 921. If passed by both legislative chambers and signed by Gov. Maura Healey, this bill would provide that homeowners receive any equity remaining beyond the tax debt following a tax sale. Currently, municipalities can sell a property taken due to back taxes and keep all the profits — even if the amount exceeds the back taxes owed.

Comerford spoke briefly to the committee Tuesday afternoon to express her strong support for the bill she filed. She said Massachusetts is one of 12 states that allow tax foreclosure resulting in home equity loss. She also mentioned that at least 250 homeowners in the state collectively lost $60 million in home equity due to the foreclosure and sale of their homes over tax debts from 2014 to 2020.

Although Jackson, Speight and Norman, who all submitted written testimony, were slated to address the committee Tuesday afternoon, they had not as of 4:15 p.m.

Jackson and Speight, theater consultants who in 2012 paid off the mortgage on the home they have together in Greenfield, testified that they fell behind on their property taxes after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theatrical productions. Jackson explained that on Dec. 29, 2021, she and Speight were served a Notice to Quit by a law firm hired by the city. She said the letter mentioned they would be evicted by Western Housing Court if they did not vacate the premises by Feb. 2, 2022. Jackson said they received a second Notice to Quit within 14 days of the first one.

According to Jackson’s testimony, she and Speight presented a $20,000 bank check to Greenfield’s tax collector, but it was rejected, leading them to get a lawyer involved.

“This partial payment would have greatly reduced accruing interest on our outstanding obligation,” Jackson said in her testimony. “It was not until we hired an attorney that the city of Greenfield began to cooperate, which was in December 2021. In addition to what we owed in taxes, we had to pay our own lawyer’s bill to defend our rights.”

She told the Joint Committee on the Judiciary that the tax title-taking/foreclosure process in Massachusetts is highly flawed. She said she and Speight paid approximately $56,000 in taxes and legal and collection costs to avoid having their property sold at public auction. At the time, she explained, they stood to lose all their equity in the property, which was assessed at $275,100 for a tax bill of $55,728.

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Jackson pointed out that state law empowers a city or town to create a local ordinance to “direct whether its collector shall exercise the power of sale or the power of taking to enforce the lien for taxes.”

Speight reiterated many of Jackson’s points in his testimony, telling committee members they were shocked to learn they could lose nearly $250,000 in private equity if Greenfield took their house to auction.

“In some parts of the state, cities and towns were selling tax debt to third-party speculators to bankrupt its citizens,” he said. “Most victims are elders and disabled. Many do not have the financial resources to obtain proper legal representation like we did, to effectively navigate Land Court.”

Speight said he and Jackson are following a home equity theft case now before the U.S. Supreme Court and a decision is expected in June. He said he doesn’t want any other homeowner to experience the fear and confusion he and Jackson felt when the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office came to his front door to evict them from their home.

“Why have we allowed this to go on this long? The families who have had their equity unconstitutionally confiscated from them should receive full restitution — including interest — from the cities and towns that robbed them,” he said in his testimony. “Please act quickly to pass S. 921.”

Norman, who worked for 33 years on Beacon Hill as a lobbyist for senior citizens, told committee members the Supreme Court case Speight referred to pertains to a 94-year-old in Minnesota.

“I believe the Supreme Court will rule that confiscating more equity than what is owed violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, that private property shall not be taken for public use ‘without just compensation,’” Norman’s testimony states. “Tax-and-take laws violate more than 800 years of law that date back to the Magna Carta in 1215, which limited King John’s right to seize property beyond what was necessary to satisfy tax debts.

Norman mentioned his research indicates Greenfield sold eight properties in 2020 and 2021, and made a $400,000 profit from tax title auctions in those two years.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.

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