Atlanta Outsources Collecting Tax Liens to Private Investors; Black Taxpayers are Losing their HomesHistorians in the News
tags: Atlanta, housing, urban history, property taxes, Foreclosure
Georgia law gives every tax commissioner the choice. When people don’t pay their taxes, the commissioners can collect the debt on their own.
Or they can let investors do it for them.
Of all the counties in Georgia, possibly only one, Fulton County, takes investors up on this offer. The practice can be a quick way to shore up the county budget. But the policy comes at a cost. It puts investors in charge of a process that can end with residents losing their homes.
A WABE investigation now shows the harmful results for Black homeowners.
WABE obtained years of delinquent tax collection data, including all properties auctioned for taxes in Fulton County between 2015 and 2022. That amounted to more than 3,200 parcels.
The analysis showed Black homeowners like Thomas’s mom were almost always on the losing end.
Among the properties considered residential according to county land use codes, 80% were in Census tracts that for decades have been mostly Black.
“It was shocking to see what a disparity it was,” said Atlanta Legal Aid attorney Stacy Reynolds, who’s worked for years to save people’s homes from the tax auction.
“I’ve certainly had enough clients that are in these areas but I assumed there were more in areas that didn’t come to us.”
These tracts only contained around 30% of residential properties in the county.
There are several factors that could contribute to this disparity. These areas, all of which were more than 80% Black at the start of the period analyzed, had lower incomes and older homes.
But Fulton’s practice of outsourcing tax collection to investors also stands out as a factor.
Frank Alexander, a professor emeritus at Emory University’s School of Law, has also pushed against this system — since the ‘90s.
“Most tax commissioners collect their own taxes and work the digest all the way through to the final events,” he said.
In Fulton though, the county often steps out of the process at the moment taxes become delinquent.
Rather than work to collect the overdue bills, the county takes the record of the debt, known as a tax lien, and sells it to investors.
When the county hands over the liens, that’s a crucial step, Reynolds said. At that point, the county puts the investors in charge.
“It’s beyond privatization,” said Dan Immergluck, a professor at Georgia State University and an expert on housing. “It’s turning governance of this whole delinquent property tax system over to speculators.”
While the investors who buy the tax liens may offer payment plans, Immergluck said their main incentive is not to help residents keep their homes. WABE’s findings confirm what their incentives are.
The properties investors chose to auction were in mostly Black areas. But they were also in areas where real estate prices are rising fastest. WABE found three-quarters saw sales prices double over four years between 2015 and 2018.