Foreclosures have upended families in some of the city’s most distressed neighborhoods. Houses were taken from a housekeeper, a department store clerk, a seamstress and even the estates of dead people. The hardest hit: elderly homeowners, who were often sick or dying when tax lien purchasers seized their houses.
One 65-year-old flower shop owner lost his Northwest Washington home of 40 years after a company from Florida paid his back taxes — $1,025 — and then took the house through foreclosure while he was in hospice, dying of cancer. A 95-year-old church choir leader lost her family home to a Maryland investor over a tax debt of $44.79 while she was struggling with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home.
I’ve been reading this series in bits, because if I read it all at once, I might punch my screen. (Newspaper executives might think of a marketing campaign based on this, come to think of it: At least with paper you rarely hurt anything if you hurl it across the room.)
Do you know how many bills I let sit sometimes? Not for long, of course, but sometimes. “I’ll get to that in a minute.” “I’ll pay that next month.” I have a house and car and pay for them each month, but sometimes things actually do get lost in the mail. Letters sit unopened because some other crisis is going on and I’d rather get a few hours’ sleep than sort them out. I’m relatively young and in relatively good health and able to mostly keep up with the obligations of adulthood (sometimes the dishes don’t get done). Even so, things slip. Sometimes.
These people are elderly, which makes it harder to manage things. And poor, which makes it harder still. Juggling money, dealing with family problems, no resources, no ability to just pay something to make it go away. But I look at their ages, I look at what they had taken from them, and I think they, like me, in large part followed the rules.
They did what they were supposed to do. They bought houses. They settled down. They put down roots in a community and stayed there. They invested, in the way we used to say was the most important way to invest: In a house, in a life, in a yard to mow and a sidewalk to shovel and neighbors to wave hello to. They lived the life we used to call The American Dream. And for sums that the 1 percent would blow on lunch, they had it taken away from them.
I look at their ages and say that was the Greatest Generation we pretend to so revere, whose way of life we tell every other generation to venerate. Home ownership. Responsibility. Good, solid jobs: nothing fancy or risky or silly that you couldn’t explain to your parents, just jobs that paid for their lives the way jobs used to do. In many cases they paid off their houses and had no mortgages. These things were theirs. Most people don’t get monuments built in their names; they have these addresses, which serve instead.
And for want of a hundred bucks or more, for want of someone to sort things out, for want of a lawyer or smart son or daughter or friend to make sense of the paperwork and write dates on the calendar once they can’t remember anymore, it’s all gone.
Suddenly, Dorsett faced an $8,000 debt — nearly 50 times her yearly bill.
Deputy Chief Financial Officer Stephen Cordi said the law required that the exemptions be removed. “She wasn’t living in the District and had no claim to those benefits,” he said.
Her grandson said the bill ultimately cost the lifelong District resident her home.
“She was very disciplined as it relates to personal responsibility, making sure bills were paid,” Eric Dorsett said. “It’s not like you have $8,000 lying around.”
When the family couldn’t pay, the tax office placed a lien on the house, then sold the lien at auction in 2008 to the highest bidder. The company was owned by Steven Berman, who had recently pleaded guilty to rigging tax lien auctions in Maryland.
And who I sincerely hope burns in hell for lacking the upstanding virtue to stick up liquor stores if he needed the money. There is a circle for child molesters and just below that is the one for people who scam the elderly. If someone had done this to my grandmother they’d have to pry his neck from my cold dead hands.
These people did what they were supposed to do. They let a bill sit for a month, or two, or three. Maybe even a year, okay? Is it worth stealing someone’s whole life for that, when you could walk down the street in parts of Manhattan and panhandle enough to pay the tab?
In 2010, Eric Dorsett learned that a judge had approved the foreclosure on his grandmother’s house. In 2011, Berman’s company sold the property for $177,000.
Hattie Dorsett died that year. Her grandson said he never told her what happened.