Renters aren’t responsible for paying the property taxes or water and sewer bills. Their monthly rent helps cover those costs, but it’s up to landlords to actually pay those bills.
When landlords fall behind on those local bills, some cash-strapped cities are selling off that debt – known as tax liens -- to investment companies.
Tax collectors are happy to get the cash, but when investors foreclose on rental properties, it’s tenants who are paying the price.
The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, uncovered dozens of eviction cases across the state in the aftermath of tax lien foreclosures. This is the second of three reports.
Madeline Lahssak is in the kitchen with her niece who’s chopping onions in a food processor to make soup for herself and her aunt.
They’re tenants in the first-floor apartment of a duplex in Quincy, and they’re facing eviction by an investment company that bought a tax lien from city’s tax collector.
The company is called Tallage, LLC, and they’re the dominant player buying up local tax debt in the state.
Lahssak had no idea the house she was living in had been foreclosed on -- that there was a new owner -- until a knock on the door.
“Jackie from Tallage comes here and says they took over the property and she said, ‘We’ll work with you.’ But then a week later, I get served with a 30-day notice to get out.”
In Lahssak’s case, she had one day to decide whether to accept an offer of $10,000 to move out within 60 days. As generous as that sounds, the quick cash offer to Lahssak was not so helpful.
“I’m gonna say it: I’m poor. I need a Section 8,” she said. “I need a home I can afford because I don’t want to be back into court and when I can’t pay my rent.
Lahssak just needs time to find a subsidized rental, which is the main reason she decided to fight the eviction in Quincy District Court with the help of lawyers from Greater Boston Legal Services.In November, Lahssak watched as one of Tallage’s lawyers, Leonard Frisoli expressed his frustration at how these eviction cases are taking.
“They are seeking to drag this out,” Frisoli told Judge Mark Coven. “Every time time we do something for them, they want more.”
Tallage bought up 88 tax liens from the city of Quincy four years ago and has filed 18 eviction cases in this courthouse since 2016.
Frisoli also bristled at Coven’s opinion of the tax lien business run by his client.
“Judge, you previously commented that you didn’t appreciate what my client does,” Frisoli said.
“I never said like that,” Coven responded. “I said he likes to buy these places at foreclosure, fix them up and flip them. I get that.”
Frisoli then corrected Coven: “They don’t fix them up, your honor. They just take them and sell them.”
In the period of time it takes Tallage to take and sell a property, tenants sometimes have no idea any of it is happening.
Rosa Silva and her family of four didn’t know for a whole year that the duplex where they live had been foreclosed on and taken over by Tallage.
And she was shocked when she learned how little Tallage paid for the duplex.
“The value of the house is around 389,000, and the company they only pay $31,000,” said Silva, who used to work as a housecleaner but was injured in a fall. Her husband is a chef at Babson College.
“On top of that, they only give me 28 days to leave. No it doesn’t work like that,” she added.
Silva also fought back in court beginning last September and now has until end of March to find a new home.
Lawyers at Greater Boston Boston Legal Services say renters caught in tax lien foreclosures are the most vulnerable in what they call a “deeply flawed process,” largely because they get no advance warning that they’re losing their homes.
“What we’re seeing is months go by and technically there’s been a change of ownership, but our clients don’t even know who to contact with issues with their property,” said Alexa Rosenbloom, an attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. “And it doesn’t work perfectly in the mortgage foreclosure context either, banks are bad landlords, but at least there is somebody, they know who to contact and at least they know who the owner of their property is.”
Rosenbloom and other critics want to see reforms in state law that would give renters the same 30-day notice that homeowners get from banks seeking to foreclose and the names of new owners who should be contacted for repairs. She also called for a mechanism that allowed renters band together and buy a tax lien themselves, potentially preserving the stock of affordable housing.
This story, Part 2 in a series, aired on WGBH 89.7.