SEIZED AND SOLD: ‘It saved me’ – Pandemic property tax payment program that helped thousands ended. Now what?

Patricia Massi looks through all the documents from the Candia house she inherited from her father in 2015. Over several years, the $13,000 in she owed in back taxes ballooned to over $22,000 due to interest.

Patricia Massi looks through all the documents from the Candia house she inherited from her father in 2015. Over several years, the $13,000 in she owed in back taxes ballooned to over $22,000 due to interest. GEOFF FORESTER/Monitor staff

Patricia Massi looks over the family photos on the wall near the stairs of her Candia home.

Patricia Massi looks over the family photos on the wall near the stairs of her Candia home. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Patricia Ingemi looks out from the side door of her home in Rochester. After rebuilding her home after a fire 10 years ago, she nearly lost her house again last year – this time to a city seizure for unpaid taxes.

Patricia Ingemi looks out from the side door of her home in Rochester. After rebuilding her home after a fire 10 years ago, she nearly lost her house again last year – this time to a city seizure for unpaid taxes. GEOFF FORESTER/Concord Monitor

Patricia Massi peers out the door of her Candia home that she inherited from her father after he died in 2015. Prior to his death her dad paid off the mortgage and sorted his estate. But he didn’€t prepare her for the fact that his property tax bill would outpace her fixed income.

Patricia Massi peers out the door of her Candia home that she inherited from her father after he died in 2015. Prior to his death her dad paid off the mortgage and sorted his estate. But he didn’€t prepare her for the fact that his property tax bill would outpace her fixed income. GEOFF FORESTER/Monitor staff

Patricia Massi talks about all the stuggles about the Candia house she inherited from her father in 2015. Prior to his death her dad paid off the mortgage and sorted his estate. But he didn’t prepare her for the fact that his property tax bill would outpace her fixed income.

Patricia Massi talks about all the stuggles about the Candia house she inherited from her father in 2015. Prior to his death her dad paid off the mortgage and sorted his estate. But he didn’t prepare her for the fact that his property tax bill would outpace her fixed income. GEOFF FORESTER/Concord Monitor

Patricia Ingemi holds up a blanket in her Rochester home that has a portrait of family. She was about to lose ownership of her property for unpaid taxes, but a federal program during the pandemic paid her overdue bill. With the end of the fund, homeowners have no such aid any longer.

Patricia Ingemi holds up a blanket in her Rochester home that has a portrait of family. She was about to lose ownership of her property for unpaid taxes, but a federal program during the pandemic paid her overdue bill. With the end of the fund, homeowners have no such aid any longer. GEOFF FORESTER / Concord Monitor

Patricia Massi looks through all the documents from the Candia house she inherited from her father in 2015.. Prior to his death her dad paid off the mortgage and sorted his estate. But he didn’t prepare her for the fact that his property tax bill would outpace her fixed income.

Patricia Massi looks through all the documents from the Candia house she inherited from her father in 2015.. Prior to his death her dad paid off the mortgage and sorted his estate. But he didn’t prepare her for the fact that his property tax bill would outpace her fixed income. GEOFF FORESTER/Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 07-01-2024 4:10 PM

Patricia Ingemi stood on the front lawn as she watched her house go up in flames. The fire grew fast, and the sound of her nine cats shrieking inside haunts her a decade later. In a matter a minutes, the single-family house she owned since 1981 was gone.

After rebuilding it from the studs, she nearly lost her house again last year – this time, to the methodical gears of government as the city of Rochester sought to take away her property for unpaid taxes.

While Ingemi’s home was a modest version of what it once was before she rebuilt – four bedrooms traded for one with an unfinished attic and basement – her taxes remained the same. Annually, her bill hovered around $3,000 a year.

In 2016, while she was trimming branches on the maple tree above her driveway, a gust of wind blew the ladder out from underneath her. Ingemi put her arm in a sling and drove herself to the hospital, fearing an ambulance ride would send her into debt.

On a fixed income with mounting medical bills, catching up on her past-due property taxes was out of the question. She tried to chip away at her debt by putting down $300 here and there to no avail.

“I kept getting behind and behind and behind,” she said. “It was like shoveling s--t against the tide.”

After three years of unpaid property taxes, New Hampshire state law gives local communities immense power to seize and sell homes to recoup the debt owed. Over the last decade, towns and cities have taken nearly 4,000 properties, according to a Monitor analysis.

Owing $26,000 to the city of Rochester in back taxes, interest and fees, Ingemi, 80, feared she’d lose everything.

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“I was crying at home,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do.’ My home, you know, and knowing how hard I worked for it.”

If paying off her mortgage felt like hitting the jackpot, the day the Homeowner Assistance Fund – a federal pandemic-aid program – settled her outstanding balance was like finding a bucket of gold, she said.

However, the $50 million federal fund that helped thousands of homeowners in New Hampshire pay off past due property taxes, mortgages and utility bills over the last two years ran dry on March 8 with no plans at the state level to replace it.

As useful as the program was, it did little to solve the root cause of why people like Ingemi fall behind on their taxes in the first place: New Hampshire’s property tax burden – the highest in the country – often hits the elderly, disabled, retired and those living on a fixed income the hardest.

“It just saddens me to see that the money is more important than people,” Ingemi said.

Some state and local programs exist to help but they are often underutilized, primarily because people don’t know about them.

“I’ve worked and I didn’t make a whole lot of money when I was younger. I’ve raised three children and I paid my house off and paid my car off,” she said. “I was trying to get myself ready for retirement… That fear of losing my house and stuff like that? I don’t need that kind of stress. I mean, I don’t want it. I’m not ready to die.”

Pandemic relief

When the pandemic hit, it was like the federal government flew a helicopter overhead and sprayed money down to each state. Or at least that’s how Stephanie Bray saw the distribution of $1.9 trillion through the American Rescue Plan Act.

“What I saw was exactly what the name of it suggests, it was rescuing a whole lot of America in New Hampshire,” said Bray, an attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance who worked with homeowners to apply for the funding.

Beginning in March 2022, eligible homeowners in the state could apply for $40,000 of assistance to pay off past-due bills.

The program had two stipulations – applicants must make below 125% of the Area Median Income, which for a family of four in Merrimack County was around $140,000, and had experienced financial hardship during the pandemic.

Yet the pattern of applicants Bray saw often went beyond that – they were elderly and living off a fixed income; they had paid off their mortgage, which eliminating the safety net of a bank paying their taxes in escrow each month; many had experienced a medical emergency, leading to unexpected bills and a string of missed payments.

These were people perpetually squeaking by, she said. Of their list of priorities, property taxes could be quick to fall.

“The people who need their car repaired now, need to turn the lights on now, need to deal with domestic violence or child custody now, they put the property taxes in a ‘not yet a crisis’ folder until it becomes a crisis,” she said. “At that time, people just get paralyzed.”

Through the beginning of April, the program received just over 6,500 applications with 3,212 approved and 839 denied. The remaining applications will compete for the balance of the fund, which dwindled to less than $1 million in April. Nearly a third of the funding went to pay overdue property taxes and interest.

“It’s really depressing how few people that should enter their ‘golden years’ with a paid-off home and a retirement package can,” said Bray.

Homeowners who received assistance are required to remain on their property for two years. If they refinance or sell their home, then the full amount of the grant needs to be repaid.

Despite what Bray would call a win-win for homeowners and municipalities, the program was used at varying rates across the state.

Through the end of 2023, Nashua led applications, with 161 homeowners receiving $1.7 million in assistance. In January 2023, the state’s second-largest city held a clinic at the Nashua Senior Activity Center, where residents were able to file assistance applications in person.

Manchester, the state’s largest city, followed with 160 homeowners receiving $1.8 million in assistance. In Concord, 85 applicants accessed just under $1 million in funding.

Meanwhile, Franklin – where the rate of property taken by tax deed was among the highest in the state, had 27 applicants – with $231,000 awarded.

Bray knows New Hampshire is unlikely to provide a long-lasting program to this scale. Since 2007, she’s litigated hundreds of cases on behalf of clients looking to stave off eviction or delay an impending seizure for overdue taxes.

No tool has been more successful than the assistance fund to help homeowners retain their properties, she said. Without it, people like Ingemi are likely to fall behind again.

“We take on difficult cases. We see clients face the worst,” Bray said. “This program is notable in the success rate.”

‘Don’t panic’

Patricia Massi took the 12 steps down to the basement when she wanted her father’s advice. Standing over the toolbox in her dusty, unfinished basement, she put her head up to the sky and said, ‘Alright, talk to me.’

Some days are hard for her to get off the couch. Most days, it’s difficult to even accept that she’s lived alone for the last decade in a house straight out of the 1950s. And it’s even harder to acknowledge the fact that she nearly lost the place her father worked so hard to leave for her.

In 2013, Massi, 70, packed up an overnight bag and drove up from Haverhill, Mass., to find her dad lying on the kitchen floor. As an only child, she was called to play caretaker in his final days. When he died in 2015, his house in Candia became hers.

She’s come to realize her dad left years of lessons behind in his two-bedroom single-family home. The calamine lotion littered around each room came in handy when she saw that the two-acre property was entangled by poison ivy in the yard.

Framed photos of her parents’ wedding day lining the staircase, reminding her of their complicated love story – her mom, who was German, fled the Nazi rule to marry an American soldier.

She added one more photo to the wall, of herself, to complete their family tree.

Prior to his death, her dad paid off the mortgage and sorted his estate. But he didn’t prepare her for the fact that his property tax bill would outpace her fixed income.

She missed a payment of just under $2,000 in 2017 and the first lien was placed on the house. By 2023, three more had been filed.

That initial bill ballooned to $22,000 in debt over the course of six years. Interest was largely to blame.

On a good day, Massi refused to open her front door and check her mailbox on Stevens Lane. She knew a letter from the town tax collector would make her stomach flip and send her into a depressive episode, curled up on the couch while her dog Bobo nudged her face.

She also knew the overdue tax bills couldn’t be ignored forever, but she had no means to pay them, she said.

And it wasn’t for lack of trying. Massi dragged plastic storage containers out from under her side table lined with manilla folders of birth certificates, death certificates, tax forms and assistance applications.

“My job every day is to figure out how I’m going to eat and stay warm. I have a full-time job selling myself, following up on programs, looking for things,” she said.

Without a computer, her research is conducted on her Android phone – applying for food stamps, fuel assistance, and a roof repair program.

When she was probating her dad’s house, Massi applied for assistance through New Hampshire Legal Aid. Through this process, she met Bray who helped her apply for the Homeowner Assistance Fund.

“I really, truly thought I was going to be homeless in the beginning,” she said. “I really thought I was gonna get a notice 30 days, ‘pack your shit’.”

But her latest tax bill was sent with a yellow Post-it note at the top from the tax collector.

“Don’t panic,” it said.

In March of last year, the assistance fund cut a check to pay off her debt. She owed over $13,000 in back taxes, but when the balance was settled it was well over $22,000.

With interest rates at 18%, compounding daily, her 2017 lien morphed from just under $2,000 at first to $7,200.

“It’s like a wall when you’re paying interest,” she said. “You gotta be ready to give them your firstborn before they even want to talk to you.”

Inconsistent aid

Before the Homeowner Assistance Fund provided federal relief, Gov. Chris Sununu tried to take a stab at his own tax relief during the pandemic.

In April 2020, he issued an emergency order telling municipal officials to suspend the tax deed process. With that, they could also forgive all interest on late tax payments. Few did.

Tax collectors say that the penalty of interest should incentivize homeowners to pay their bills on time. Instead, it kicks off a cycle that buries the poorest property owners deeper and deeper in debt.

When the homeowner assistance program began, applicants could receive $20,000 in assistance. For Ingemi, this cleared some, but not all of her $26,000 bill.

Once the program guidelines were adjusted to increase awards to $40,000 per household, Ingemi was able to reapply and pay her remaining balance – but Rochester could have forgiven the interest owed on her late taxes to settle the bill without additional assistance.

Rochester tax collector Rachel Laughner declined to be interviewed for this series.

Municipalities waiving interest would have been another way to extend the life of the Homeowner Assistance Fund, leaving more money for the 2,511 outstanding applications.

Existing tax credits and exemptions to help homeowners vary by community. Some tax credits, like those for veterans and surviving spouses, are standard requirements. Others, like a tax credit for combat service and a disabled exemption, are optional and left in the hands of town voters to adopt.

In Bow, elderly residents between the ages of 65 to 74 can qualify for a $122,000 reduction from their property assessment. In neighboring Boscawen, the same elderly exemption is a $15,800 reduction of property value.

State law also allows for homeowners who are over 65 or disabled to defer their annual tax bills, meaning they can delay paying taxes for an annual interest rate of 5 percent.

A homeowner can defer up to 85% of the total value of their property. If the owner sells the house, or dies, all deferred taxes are then owed.

While these programs can be an effective way for homeowners to lower their annual tax bills, they can be poorly advertised. Whatever relief is rewarded lessens the municipality’s property tax revenue, with no aid from the state to cover the difference.

“Some towns are really, really good about publicizing other forms of tax relief like exemption and deferral and others are not,” Bray said. “It is inconsistent with the economic self interest, as towns generally see it, to publicize tax relief programs, particularly deferrals.”

Another home almost lost

With three loud raps at the door and her golden retrievers barking, Denise Prinopoulos awoke with a jolt. It was six days before Christmas, and the county sheriff was at her doorstep with an eviction notice in hand.

She had 15 minutes to leave before the city of Somersworth would padlock her door and repossess her house due to her unpaid property taxes.

“I’ve been woken up out of a dead sleep. It was freezing out. And I had no idea what was going on,” she said.

A city choosing to hold firm on its interest rates can be the difference between a homeowner saving their property or turning over the keys. Prinopoulos knows.

When she realized her delinquent property taxes surpassed $30,000, interest forgiveness was the first thing she begged for.

Prinopolous quit her job and moved back to her childhood home to care for her mother who had Alzheimer’s. When she passed, she stayed put in Somersworth. The mortgage was paid and her kids were now enrolled in the school district.

Then one day she couldn’t focus. She’d had cramps she’d been trying to ignore for a few days, chalking it up to stress. But when she finally went to the hospital, her appendix burst. An infection then led to sepsis. For months, she was in and out of the hospital, with several surgeries under her belt.

That, of course, came with a new set of medical bills.

“I didn’t say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go to the casino and gamble my tax money or I am going to go on vacation to the South of France and screw my debt,’” she said. “It was just a bunch of unexpected circumstances, where there’s COVID, me getting sick, my mom getting sick, just things that happen to everyday folks.”

The first lien on the house was for a fraction of the annual tax bill, just under $500 owed to the city in 2017. But the following year she owed the total amount, $4,684.76. And the next year, another $5,132.55 payment was missed.

By January 2020, a tax deed was issued to take ownership of the property.

At the time Prinopoulos was still out of work. She had started to put a couple thousands of dollars down each month, but even then, it only scratched the surface.

At city hall, she saw an 8.5 x 11-inch piece of paper advertising the Homeowner Assistance Fund. She took a picture and decided to apply. No one at the city had mentioned this program as an option, she said.

By September 2023, the assistance fund cut a check for just under $35,000.

“This program was literally the only way I ever would have been able to save this house,” she said.

‘I have to get out of here’

For the last two years, Bray has taken her office on the road. In a McDonald’s, public library or Dunkin’ she’s met clients to fill out forms and gather documents. She met Ingemi at the legal aid offices in Portsmouth, across the state from Claremont, where she’s typically based.

With her laptop, a portable scanner and her cellphone for internet connection, she could complete an application then and there.

“We meet people where they are,” Bray said.

Through the program, Bray and other New Hampshire legal assistance lawyers made contact with hundreds of homeowners statewide who often can otherwise fall through the cracks.

By collecting financial information and property tax bills of thousands of homeowners, she’s now able to track any tax relief programs they may qualify for and assist them in applying in upcoming years. Legal Assistance will mail out prefilled applications that will just require a homeowner’s signature to be returned to the town.

Both Massi and Ingemi applied for deferrals, putting off the majority of their property taxes to be paid at a later date.

The decision meant Ingemi won’t have to pay the $3,000 annual tax bill on her home, which she bought for $49,000 and is now valued at $224,000. If she was forced to leave, she’s not sure where she would go.

“If I don’t have my house to live in, I’ll be living in the woods because the amount of money I make on Social Security won’t even cover the rent,” she said. “If I was dishing that out all to rent, what was I going to eat or live on? If I moved to elderly housing, that means I would have had to get rid of all my animals... or I’d be living on the street.”

Ingemi’s house in Rochester is the only place she’s ever owned in the state. As a retired kindergarten teacher, it’s where one of her old students came by to help her install her air conditioning each year. It’s where she grieved her late partner, Michael, his ashes in an urn in the basement alongside murals of her grandkids she’d painted on the concrete foundation. It’s where she’s decorated every nook and cranny of her living room with paintings she’s made – some of cats (her favorite animals) and others of motivational messages for herself.

Her latest art will be a tearjerker to finish, she said.

“I’m not afraid of dying,” she wrote in black paint along the rim of a purple canvas. “I’m afraid of not being remembered.”

She hopes to be remembered by the high school yearbooks on her shelves and photo albums of Halloween parades with her kids in homemade costumes. A walk through her house and it’s evident that she’s an animal lover, a mother, a painter, a grandmother.

“I planned to have an easier life when I get older. I worked hard to do that and did the best I could raising my three children by myself since I was 32 years old,” she said. “When I got in touch with this program, I mean I can’t tell you how it saved me. Stress-wise, all I could think about is you get so far behind, you’re going to take my house away.”

Deferring her taxes was a hard decision to make, knowing that the bill will be left to her kids when she dies, but it allowed her to stay.

“It’s not a nice feeling inside when you’re in the situation that I’m in,” she said. “I know so many people are skimming by just like me.”

For Prinopoulos, that day in December was still one of the most traumatic for herself and her college-aged daughter who was home for her winter break. There are dents in her door from the sheriff’s pounding.

Once the two-year mark is up, Prinopoulos plans to leave. When she reaches for the front door knob and sees the faint marks from the sheriff’s force, it’s all she can think of.

“I have to get out of here just for my mental health. After my mom was here, she was sick. Then I was sick. And then the taxes,” she said. “Sometimes you just got to go.”

This project was produced through a partnership with Report for America, the Investigative Editing Corps and the Concord Monitor.