On September 25, 2013, LDF sent a letter to Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and the thirteen members of the D.C. Council urging them to make changes to the District of Columbia’s property tax lien sales system. Tax lien sales are used by many jurisdictions across the country as a means to collect delinquent property taxes, and each jurisdiction applies this system differently. In the District of Columbia, once property taxes have been declared delinquent, the District sells the lien to a third-party purchaser who, in turn, charges the homeowner interest until the property tax debt is paid off, and who also has the right to foreclose on the property if the homeowner fails to pay the debt.
In an explosive, three-part investigative series, The Washington Post uncovered a number of flaws with the District of Columbia’s tax lien sales system. The reporters found that the tax lien sales process has morphed into a predatory debt collection system that has robbed people of their homes, even though their property debts were often very small. The Post highlighted the experiences of one African-American individual who lost his home in Northeast Washington because of a property tax debt of $134. Even more troubling: this practice has disproportionately impacted the District’s elderly and African-American residents.
In our letter, LDF called on the Mayor and the D.C. Council to make a number of systemic reforms to this unfair and predatory practice. We discussed the importance of building in procedural safeguards, and ensuring that there is meaningful oversight and supervision over the property tax lien sales system. We also offered recommendations for how the District can permanently reform this practice and enact remedies to ensure that the tax lien sales system operates in a manner that is fair, and also does not disproportionately impact communities of color.