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Tax Bills Put Pressure On Struggling Homeowners - U.s.

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http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/business...mp;ref=business

Hard times are causing more homeowners to fall behind on their property taxes. But in thousands of cases, they are not responsible to their local governments, but to private companies that charge double-digit interest and thousands of dollars in service fees.

This is because in recent years struggling cities and counties have sold their delinquent tax bills to the highest bidder. It seemed a painless way to turn old debts into cash to finance schools or public services.

But housing advocates say the private companies may be exacerbating the foreclosure crisis, pushing out homeowners faster than would governments, which are increasingly concerned about neighborhoods becoming wastelands of abandoned properties.

“In the beginning, you’re getting this immediate windfall of cash,†said Anita Lopez, the auditor of Lucas County, Ohio, which sold off more than 3,000 tax liens for $14.7 million. The county includes Toledo. “But when you think about abandoned properties, foreclosed properties — the cost to the community is far more expensive than the short-term benefits.â€

Investors say the arrangement actually benefits everyone. School districts, fire departments and public parks get an infusion of cash. The investors take on a risky but potentially high-yielding investment. And taxpayers do not have to pick up the slack from scofflaw landlords or tax evaders.

Governments, of course, can charge interest and penalties too, and they foreclose on properties for back taxes. But governments charge interest rates that are half what private investors charge — often offering no-interest payment plans — and are also more likely to be concerned about the long-term prospects of neighborhoods.

In Toledo, one of the areas hardest hit by the downturn and by private lenders holding tax liens, homeowners like Richard Fix are facing foreclosure for a few thousand dollars in overdue taxes.

Mr. Fix said he lost his job with Chrysler in January 2008 and took a lower-paying job. As he and his family struggled to pay their mortgage, credit cards and other bills, he said they fell behind on $5,900 in taxes.

“I’m in a no-win situation at this point,†he said.

With the economy faltering and property values plunging, homeowners and landlords are falling behind on their bills or abandoning their property, just as governments are facing huge budget shortfalls.

Private investors step in and buy tax liens, paying governments upfront all or part of the value of the taxes. The investors then get the right to foreclose on the properties, taking priority over mortgage lenders, and to charge interest rates as high as 18 percent on the unpaid taxes.

“It beats the heck out of any certificate of deposit,†said Howard Liggett, executive director of the National Tax Lien Association.

Short termism wins again, just give us the cash now we don't care.

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