Gray (D) said that “from this point forward, no District residents whose property has been sold at a tax-lien sale will be at risk of losing their homes through this process if they have extraordinary circumstances that warrant a re-examination of their cases.”
The changes to the century-old program were prompted by a 10-month Washington Post investigation that exposed a system that has allowed poor and elderly residents to lose their homes over debts of only a few hundred dollars.
A total of 142 liens placed on primary residences, including more than 40 owned by seniors, will be canceled, the officials said. The cancellations represent about $490,000 in back taxes on properties worth $60 million scattered across every ward of the city.
Canceling this year’s sales will require the city to pay fees to the debt buyers, said a senior city official familiar with the matter. Those costs could amount to several hundred thousand dollars, he said.
Homeowners whose liens are canceled will still be required to pay their tax debts.
Cases from prior years now in the courts will be reviewed by the city’s attorney general and deputy mayor for health and human services to ensure that vulnerable residents do not lose their homes.
A new property tax ombudsman, the mayor’s office said, will assist with tax-sale and other matters — for instance, referring homeowners to legal-aid groups, nonprofit counselors and other government assistance.
One attorney who represents a 76-year-old veteran who lost his home after he failed to pay a $134 tax bill said he welcomed changes that would protect clients like his who have dementia or other disabilities.
“It is absolutely essential to protect these people,” said Robert Bunn, a guardian for Bennie Coleman, the retired Marine Corps sergeant who lost his house in 2010.
As recently as Friday afternoon, the city tax office was seeking to play down The Post’s findings, claiming that the cases highlighted in the series would not happen today. Stephen M. Cordi, the chief of the Office of Tax and Revenue, appeared on WAMU-FM to address the stories.
“The Post articles read as though the problem were continuing today, and nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We no longer sell properties for a few hundred dollars.”
Cordi cited his 2008 decision to impose a threshold level for the amount of delinquent taxes that would be sold at auction, which now stands at $1,000. “You shouldn’t lose your house for a small amount of dollars, and we have taken steps to prevent that from happening,” he said.