The Corner

D.C. Government: Big Enough to Take Everything You Have

As president Gerald Ford once said, “A government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have.” Well, this weekend the Washington Post had a story that’s a good illustration of this. Over the years, Washington, D.C., tax officials’ policies forced many residents who owed small amounts in taxes to fight collection agencies in order to keep their homes, at great cost to them. The Post reports:

Since 2007, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue put nearly 1,900 owners at risk of foreclosure by imposing liens on their properties and then erroneously selling them to investors at public auctions.

The sales have stunned property owners across the city — many of them elderly and poor — who have scrambled to attend court hearings and plead with city officials to clear their names.

Here are some stories:

A 48-year-old math teacher paid his taxes in 2007, but the tax office took his $1,400 payment and applied it to the wrong house, crediting an entirely different taxpayer.

A 58-year-old bank employee almost lost her house in 2010 because the tax office mistakenly sent bills and notices to a wooded lot across from a strip shopping center in Virginia — 12 times.

A 69-year-old hat designer was given the wrong payoff amount and ended up in court to save her property, owned by her family since 1943.

Those homeowners found out about the mistakes in time to fight. Ninety-five-year-old Daisy Dolsey, living in a nursing home and struggling with Alzheimer’s, wasn’t so lucky: She lost her $300,000 house over a $44.79 tax debt even after she paid her taxes.

According to the story, 20 percent of the liens placed on properties for tax deliquency have been sold by mistake:

For more than a century, the District has placed liens on properties when owners failed to pay their taxes, then sold them at auctions. The investors buying the liens charge owners interest and often hefty fees on top of the tax debt and can take the properties through foreclosure if the money is not repaid.

But one in every five liens has been sold by mistake, forcing the tax office to later cancel the sales — and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to compensate the investors who bought them.

The tax office’s own records show a series of errors, from failing to credit taxpayers for their payments to applying money to the wrong accounts.

You can read the whole thing here. It is depressing and horribly costly for the victims. To make matter worse, the Post notes, “Tax lien foreclosures fall heavily in the District’s minority neighborhoods, and The Post found at least 30 foreclosed homeowners since 2008 who would have been in their 70s, 80s and 90s.”

Interestingly, WaPo reported Monday that Democratric mayor Vincent C. Gray and other top D.C. officials were rightfully shocked when they read about the abuse in the newspaper on Sunday. They promised that “they would pursue emergency legislation next week to reform the practice.” That’s well and fine, except that, according to the Post, these guys had been informed of the situation last year. They had just decided to ignore it until it made the front page of the paper. 

Of course, these types of abuses are not new. Here is another good example. Watch this video and cry.


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