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Behind on Property Taxes in Texas? Beware of ‘Help’

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June 27, 2012

SAN JUAN, Texas - Housing advocates are warning Texans who have fallen behind of their property taxes to beware of letters from law firms offering to pay the back taxes. Those offers of assistance could lead to lost homes.

It's all-too common in areas hit hardest by the recent recession, according to San Juan-based housing advocate Ann Williams Cass. She's been spreading the word among struggling homeowners in the Rio Grande Valley that an official-looking letter promising relief could spell trouble.

"It looks real helpful. They have your name, the account number with the county. They have the exact amount of taxes that you owe. But they're predators, looking to not only get a lot of interest but, perhaps, foreclose on your house."

Big-city law firms, she says, comb through tax rolls in counties hundreds of miles away to find out who's delinquent. They offer to pay the taxes due but extract sky-high interest rates in return. In buying out the tax liens from counties, they purchase the right to quickly foreclose on properties when owners miss mortgage payments.

Cass heads Proyecto Azteca, a member of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network. The self-help housing program offers no-interest mortgages to limited-income Valley residents who contribute "sweat equity" to homes built by the nonprofit group.

Even these owners, Cass says, have been targeted by predatory lenders. Her advice? Don't fall behind on taxes. And, if you do, beware of contracts that sound too good to be true.

"When you get a letter like that, be very cautious. Read the fine print. Look at the interest rate that you're going to be paying. Understand that you could lose your home in the process."

The scheme is not illegal - yet - so Cass plans to ask state lawmakers this summer to introduce legislation next session that would regulate the transference of county tax liens. She's inviting banks and mortgage companies to join the fight, since they too risk losing their investments when outsiders gain repossession power. The state Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner has indicated it's considering proposing new rules as well.

The Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, chaired by Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, is expected to schedule a hearing on the issue before the next session.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX