John Wright: “Up until six months ago, I was employed, and thus able to pay my mortgage and property taxes. I was let go, and the town has placed a lien on my home. I do not want my family to become a statistic. How can you turn us out to the streets?”

Cathy Wright: “What programs are available to assist families like us who want employment and want to pay our mortgage?"

John Wright: “Where can I find an advocate who will speak for families?”

Research programs in your community that might help the Wright family, discussing at least two plans that would help the family. Also, in your initial response, please be sure to include the actions (two at minimum) you would take as the town manager who heard from the Mr. and Mrs. Wright at this meeting.

Expert Answers

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Two actions a town manager might take upon hearing the story of the Wright family could include (a) provide the Wright family the contact information for a social worker or constituent services representative who might be better able to offer them individualized assistance than they would be likely to receive in the plenary session of a town council meeting and (b) offer a statement of empathy and verbal assurance that programs exist which can assist them.

The question of a tax lien is a complex matter that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In a large number of states in the United States, a home which has had a tax lien placed upon it can be sold by the taxing authority for the amount of the past-due taxes. In other words, while the Wright home may be valued at $250,000, the taxing authority could sell it for as little as $5,000 if that is the amount of the Wright family's past-due taxes on the property. This can, for obvious reasons, be a disaster for a family whose primary asset is its residence.

Several options exist for homeowners in this situation.

First, the Wright family can request reevaluation of their property. To do so they need to prove that the valuation used for tax purposes is unfair or unreasonable. A new, lower assessment would have the effect of decreasing the property tax bill. Unfortunately, based on the description of his situation Mr. Wright has offered, the time to do this has probably now passed.

Second, the Wright family may have specific circumstances that will allow them to begin paying reduced property taxes. In California, for instance, property taxes for elderly homeowners can be capped as a percentage of the homeowner's income. If the Wright family lives in Maryland, Minnesota, or New York, they may be eligible for a "circuit breaker" program which similarly ties property taxes to family income.

Ultimately, however, the lien on the Wright family's home is a symptom of two separate, but interlinked, factors: a lack of employment and a lack of financial resources with which to pay property taxes.

The first of these factors, a lack of employment, appears specific to Mr. Wright who is, from his description, long-term unemployed with no job prospects on the horizon in whatever his profession is. Some states offer free job retraining programs for those who are chronically unable to seek employment, and Mr. Wright may benefit from such a program to move into gainful employment. In Washington state, for instance, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges offers a worker retraining program that provides up to $3,620 per student with persons who are long-term unemployed taking priority for the program.

The second of these factors, a lack of financial resources, can be ameliorated in some areas through mortgage assistance programs. In New Jersey, for example, the HomeKeeper program "offers eligible homeowners up to $48,000 in financial assistance to cover arrearages and/or monthly mortgage payments (including principal, interest, taxes, and insurance) for up to 12 months."

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