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Help Miss Edna Keep her Home

February 28, 2020
 Is it possible to buy a home for $268.13 and legally kick out a 74-year old woman from the home she has lived in for the last 26 years and who has nearly paid off the mortgage? Apparently yes, it’s not only legal, but it is happening right here in Wicomico County. The staff in our office at Habitat for Humanity are sick about this situation but the fact is there are few resources to help older adults once they have become behind in their property taxes.
Keeping older adults safe in their homes should be a priority for the counties, cities, and municipalities. Can Wicomico County and Salisbury afford to deal with the alternative? Are the homeless shelters equipped for a senior tsunami? I don’t think so. We need more than a conversation about this.
Here is Miss Edna’s story. She gave me permission to share her experiences because she hopes the public can somehow help her and others in this unfortunate situation.
Miss Edna worked for 34 years for Kool Seafood in Cambridge but decided to buy her home and raise her son in Salisbury. 26 years ago, when she bought her home, she didn’t have a down payment, so the seller helped her by purchase through a seller-held second mortgage valued at 20% of the selling price. With that help, Miss Edna was able to get a conventional loan for the other 80%. Over the last 26 years, she has never been late with her mortgage payment. She received a homeowner’s property tax credit from the state of Maryland and paid her property taxes on time. Even though she had to retire at 62, she was able to make ends meet and pay her $262 mortgage payment. Then, Social Security sent her a letter stating her monthly check was dropping from $1099 to $540 a month. Miss Enda is still not quite sure why that happened, but with her newly restricted income, her finances and snowballed out of control. When she applied for food stamps, because she does not have dependents in the home, the most she is eligible for is $17 a month. When her tax bill came in 2018, she didn’t have enough to pay it. She was embarrassed. Then, in April 2019, her water stopped working. Her home is on well and septic. When she tried to get help to get her water turned on, because she was behind in her taxes, she was denied. She contacted another office at the county, and their waiting list for home repairs is 300 families long. With no family in the area and in ill health, Miss Edna was desperate. All this time, she was getting certified letters about the tax sale coming, but she didn’t know what that meant. Her health was not good either. On January 7, 2020, Miss Edna called Habitat for Humanity of Wicomico County.
Below is the panicked email I received from my Sheri Ewing, our Family Services Manager:
1/7/20
I received a phone call today from a 74-year old woman who lives alone and has been without water for several months. Her Social Security, after the deduction for Medicare equals approximately $541.00 so there is no money to pay for repairs. She called with this water issue but after some research I found that she has a much bigger problem. She is about to lose her home in a tax sale. I honestly don’t believe she understands exactly what is going on. If this tax sale is allowed to follow its course, she will be homeless. Where will she go?
How is this possible? There are corporations that prey on people in these situations. It may be legal but is it moral? I think not. If we at Habitat are unable to step in and help, this 74-year old women will end up homeless. I can’t imagine the stress she is going through. In my position as the Family Services Manager for Habitat for Humanity of Wicomico County, I meet with people every day who are navigating financial storms. Some are in their current circumstances because of poor choices made in their youth and want to improve their lives and those of their children. Others are dealing with extreme medical issues and need help weathering those storms, and some are on low fixed incomes and need help with major home repairs. I listen to their stories and although I empathize, I’m able to analyze these different situations and keep my emotions steady. But, when 74-year-old black women is about to lose her home because of greed, it makes me angry. Angry because 27 years of paying a mortgage is negated by less than a year of unpaid taxes. Angry because a corporation is attempting to literally steal this person’s home. Angry that there are people who believe it’s okay to take advantage of someone. And angry because it’s not against the law. How do these people sleep at night?
She was meant to call us. I pray that we can help her save her home.
–Sheri
I sprang into action asking Sheri to call the county and find out who bought the property in the tax sale and how much it would cost to redeem it so that Miss Edna would not lose her home. Then we would help her get an estimate for the water well repair. The county told us that the ‘investors’ and attorneys can charge whatever they want and this one wanted over $1000 plus the back taxes. If they didn’t receive the money by February 3, 2020, they would go to court and get full access to the deed and evict Miss Edna. They said they had the right and it was legal. The attorney the investor hired is from Baltimore.
Miss Edna is not alone. We tasked our social work intern with looking up all of the properties that are owner occupied that went to tax sale that the county bought back and are offering on the open market right now. When I called the County Finance office, they said that they just collect taxes and don’t look at the individual demographics of the delinquent properties.
Affordable housing in Wicomico County is already at a crisis level. In Salisbury, one out of two families pay more than half of their after-tax income on rent. There is not enough subsidized housing. The quality of older rental housing is deplorable. Worse, we don’t have enough senior housing to address older adults’ needs as they age. In fact, a large senior housing apartment and home living complex in Salisbury, Gateway Senior living, won’t take new applications until Spring of 2021 due to renovations. Even then, they have waiting lists. Basically, someone has to die first to open up a spot. Just last week, a 62-year old woman was found dead in a storage unit that she was living in.
Again, keeping older adults safe in their homes should be a priority for the counties, cities, and municipalities. I am suggesting a moratorium on forced foreclosures of tax sales properties of owner-occupied homes owned by people 62 and older. Can Wicomico County and Salisbury afford to deal with the alternative? I don’t think so. We need more than a conversation about this.
Molly Hilligoss
Executive Director, Habitat for Humanity of Wicomico County