Homeowners Left Homeless: Thousands may not have known their homes would be auctioned off by Shelby County government
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Investigators are digging deeper into hundreds of Shelby County properties that were sold at auction during the pandemic because the owners were behind on their tax bills.
An investigation with our partners at the University of Memphis Institute for Public Service Reporting reveals many of those homeowners may not have received notice their properties were being sold.
Archie Robinson was sick and bedridden last year when he received an eviction notice saying he had to move out of the house he owned immediately.
“Some young lady served me some papers stating that someone had bought the home, and why was I here? And who was I?” said Robinson. “I was like - I’ve been here basically all my life.”
Robinson inherited his childhood home in Memphis’ Glenview neighborhood from his mother who was behind on the property taxes when she passed.
It was sold in a tax sale last February by the Shelby County Trustee’s Office to collect the money he owed in back taxes — about $5,000.
Robinson said he had no idea he’d lost his home until that eviction notice, so he called the Trustee’s Office and spoke with an employee to find out what happened.
“I asked, ‘How could you sell my property without me knowing?’ He said ‘Well, we sent out notices,’” said Robinson. “I said, ‘Well, I haven’t received any notices.’”
State law requires that trustees notify homeowners facing tax sales. Shelby County uses certified mail, which means the homeowner - or another authorized person - signs the notice when they receive it.
In late March 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Postal Service began allowing their carriers to sign the notices instead, marking the documents with “COVID” or “C-19.”
While the Shelby County Trustee Regina Morrison Newman disputed Robinson’s claim via email saying he signed three certified mail notices, which Robinson denies, what she doesn’t dispute is that thousands of homeowners may not have received proper notice that their houses were going into a tax sale.
Newman told this to the County Commission in October 2020.
“Our return receipts for 30,000 pieces of certified mail came back marked COVID, so we could not prove to the courts that anybody received that mail or that due process was provided,” Newman said at the time.
Despite the lack of proof, the Trustee’s Office moved forward with the tax sales and put nearly 1,700 properties on the auction block between August 2020 and February 2021, while federal eviction and mortgage foreclosure bans were in place.
An analysis done in partnership with the University of Memphis Institute for Public Service Reporting shows most of those properties were vacant, but more than 400 appear to have been occupied by their owners.
In such cases, residents often face eviction or are forced to scramble for money to repurchase their own homes. Many other tax-foreclosed homes house vulnerable renters.
Newman denied Action News 5′s request for an on-camera interview, but previously defended her decision to move forward with the tax sales by saying her office published the addresses in the Memphis Daily News, fulfilling a state requirement to publish addresses in a newspaper of general circulation.
The notices are also published on Public Notice Tennessee, a website listing all public notices in Tennessee.
Housing advocates and neighborhood groups, as well as potential buyers, use the Memphis Daily News and its site to monitor foreclosure notices.
Multiple homeowners The Investigators spoke with said they never saw nor heard of the Memphis Daily News, which is where those notices are published.
Newman pushed one tax sale from April 2020 to August 2022, and said over the phone that her office reaches out to some homeowners facing tax sales depending on how much they owe.
Meanwhile, Jack Turner, a former attorney from Newman’s office, sat down with Action News 5 and said it’s possible homeowners may come forward and say they didn’t receive proper notice.
Before he left the Trustee’s office in the spring, they were still getting certified mail signatures from postal workers, not homeowners, while tax sales continued.
“Somebody may challenge a tax sale after the fact and say they were never given notice and the courts will have to decide whether the notice was sufficient or not,” said Turner. “If that happens, they’re still going to have back taxes due, but it might set aside a tax sale.”
But a homeowner must have the money to challenge the sale in court.
Homeowners Denise Thomas and Jack Mitchell say they didn’t receive notice before they lost their home in a November 2020 tax sale, so challenging that sale was not an option.
“I do not know of the resources that we could’ve used in order to do anything about it, so we kind of just let it slide,” said Thomas.
Thomas and Mitchell are now living in a rental and barely making ends meet, while Robinson borrowed money to redeem his property and keep his house.
But with his financial resources drained, he is once again behind on his property taxes.
“I can’t imagine not having any place to live or having to depend on someone else for my wellbeing, especially after working so hard and now being disabled,” said Robinson.
Part Three of Homeowners Left Homeless, in partnership with The Institute for Public Service Reporting, will air Tuesday at 6 p.m.
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