Retiree James Lowery was set to lose his $145,000 house this Saturday over a $4,889.46 sewer debt he had mostly paid off.
He got a last-minute reprieve — until February. Then the sewer authority has court permission to return with another sign for an auction on his house.
“It’s bad out there, man,” Lowery said. “They say if you don’t pay your sewer bill they have the right to take your house.”
The Covid-19 mercy period has ended for working-class homeowners like Lowery who are buried in lawyer fees and other costs associated with back debts. The state court system has allowed debt-holders to have debtors’ homes foreclosed upon and auctioned off again, starting this Saturday, Oct. 3.
Some cases, like Lowery’s, have been postponed.
Snow Turner, too, had a sign placed in front of her Fair Haven home announcing a foreclosure sale this week for a debt that began as $1,193.18 in unpaid sewer bills and then more than tripled thanks to piled-up fees. She, too, has received a few months’ reprieve, as the foreclosure clock keeps ticking.
Foreclosure sales had been put on hold since March 19 in Connecticut due to orders by Superior Court Judge Abrams, chief administrative judge for the state judicial system’s civil division. He lifted the order on Sept. 24, allowing foreclosers to seek court dates for auctions.
The first set of auctions, scheduled for this Saturday, originally included a whopping 21 in New Haven, where tough economic times have left homeowners like Turner struggling to emerge from ever-increasing piles of debt. (Often parties settle at the last minute, or work out repayment plans, in the days before a scheduled auction, leading to the auction being called off.)
A federal moratorium continues protecting homeowners with federally insured mortgages, according to Judicial Branch spokesperson Melissa Farley.
That leaves holders of other liens to decide whether or not to proceed with backed-up auction sales. Some agencies, like the Regional Water Authority, are holding off from seeking to seize people’s homes or push them to the brink with increased fees. Others, like the City of New Haven and the sewer authority, aka the Greater New Haven Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA), asked and won permission to put up those signs.
“They Like Trump”
James Lowery was told it was illegal to remove the sign attached to the white fence outside his Lombard Street home on a rise overlooking the Quinnipiac River.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to let you take my house for that! I’ve lived here 22 years.’”
So down came the sign. But the scheduled auction was still on.
The WPCA sued Lowery in 2018. The complaint stated that he had failed to make payment on bills totaling $1,979.88 between 2013 and 2018.
Lowery said he had been living with his girlfriend in another home during those years. His sister lived in his house. He thought she had taken care of those bills. He was mistaken.
He moved back in and got the back-due bill — which with penalties and interest had now grown to $4,889.46.
The WPCA’s attorney, Nicholas oIngione, submitted, and had approved, an additional bill this past Sept. 27. It added another $3,745.12 to Lowery’s debts to cover the court entry fee, the marshal fee, the title search, and attorney’s fees.
By November, the court issued a notice of judgement of foreclosure by sale. It listed Lowery’s total debts as $7,389.46, and the fair market value of his home at $145,000.
Lowery is retired. He worked hard at full-time jobs throughout his adult life, first detailing cars at Stevens Ford, then in general maintenance at B’nai Jacob Synagogue. He didn’t have the money to pay the debt back all at once.
So he worked out a repayment system, he said. He agreed to pay back $500 per month. He said he has been making the payments faithfully. It’s not easy: He lives on a $1,800 monthly social security check supplemented by part-time work he does setting up chairs and tables at private events, he said; his monthly mortgage alone is $1,380.
He hasn’t missed a monthly payment for nine consecutive months, he insisted.
Then he came home one day three weeks ago to find the foreclosure sale sight attached to the fence.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not gonna let you take my house for that! I’ve lived here 22 years.’”
Lowery, who doesn’t have his own lawyer, frantically contacted the WPCA and the attorney appointed by the court to conduct the auction. He had saved all his receipts, he said, and wanted to show them.
“They don’t care. They like Trump. They only care about money. They don’t care about people,” Lowery said.
By late last week he hadn’t been able to resolve the situation, he said in an interview. Unbeknownst to him, a judge had modified the order and postponed the sale to Feb. 27, 2021. Mingione did not return phone calls for comment for this story. But both the WPCA and the attorney handling the sale confirmed the postponement.
Snow Turner (pictured) has left the sign up in front of her house on Exchange Street. She, too, told the Independent she made call after call and couldn’t get an answer from the WPCA or the lawyer handling the scheduled Oct. 3 sale of her house.
Turner fell behind $4,900 in unpaid bills and penalties and fees, which grew to $7,500 by the time the attorneys and marshals got in their last charges.
Turner lives in her house and rents out to tenants as well. For years her tenants paid faithfully. Then came a tenant she had taken in after he’d been homeless; he was paying the rent faithfully until he lost his job. Subsequent tenants had trouble making the rent, too, and she fell back on numerous bills. Only the WPCA went to court to complete the foreclosure and schedule the sale.
“It’s terrible. I’ve been here 15 years,” said Turner, who took a job as a health aide with a private firm after working for the city health department for 18 1/2 years. She said her credit union was trying to help her present the WPCA with a repayment plan. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, the WPCA did file for a postponement in recent days; the new auction date is set for Feb. 27, as well. Snow, who hadn’t received word from the WPCA or the court about the postponement, was relieved to learn the news from the Independent; she is working with her credit union to prepare a payback plan, she said.
The WPCA has traditionally waited until customers run up $1,000 in debts before beginning foreclosure actions, which then trigger the new cascade of fees and penalties. One legal-aid attorney has termed the practice the “nuclear option.”
Other local authorities take a different approach: They put a lien on properties for four-figure debts that are only the fraction of the value of a customer’s home. They don’t pursue the foreclosure itself. They wait until the property changes hands to collect instead of driving the customers further into debt and potentially lose their property.
The regional water authority has had that approach for years, for instance. Authority spokesperson Dan Doyle confirmed that the policy remains in place. “We have the right to obtain liens for past due bills” but don’t pursue foreclosure actions, he said. It has a lien on Snow Turner’s home, for instance, for $4,527.24, according to court records.
The WPCA came under fire at the dawn of the last recession when it aggressively went after many New Haven customers’ homes for debts in the low four figures, contributing to a foreclosure crisis in town. One Dixwell woman was foreclosed upon for owing $793.10. The Board of Alders, led by its then-president, blasted the practice and grilled authority officials at a 2008 hearing, though the mayor at the time didn’t push the issue. Then, to plug a budget hole with one-time cash, the city sold the agency to a new independent quasi-public regional authority dominated by suburban towns. And the city lost leverage over the agency, which processes human waste from towns throughout the region in New Haven.
So the WPCA has continued to go on foreclosure tears. In one 12-month period three years ago, for instance, it filed 158 foreclosures on debts as low as $2,200. It filed 150 New Haven foreclosure cases in the first six months of 2012. The cases have been clustered in New Haven’s Hill, West River, Newhallville and Fair Haven neighborhoods. Some cases do end in WPCA selling off the house to collect a fraction of the proceeds. While most cases settle days before a sale, they do so at a steeper price that plunge homeowners deeper into precarious financial conditions.
In both New Haven and Bridgeport, only the sewer authority takes the more drastic step of pursuing foreclosures, according to Jeffrey Gentes, who helps homeowners facing foreclosure as an attorney with the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and a Yale clinic.
“Why do these other places manage to pull it off but you can’t? Are you so fiscally mismanaged that you need the money now?” Gentes asked.
“It’s a racket for the lawyers,” he added, though “I don’t blame the lawyers for getting the business.”
WPCA Director of Finance and Administration Gabe Varca (pictured) said his agency works hard to avoid foreclosure by arranging payment plans with customers in debt.
“By the time we start foreclosure it’s been several years since we’ve received payment,” he noted. “Our goal is obviously to get paid.”
When someone falls behind on a bill, that can cause rates to rise, Varca said. Then “the people who do pay the bills have to shoulder the costs of people who don’t pay.”
A third scheduled, and also postponed, auction this week illustrates how the threat of foreclosure is needed to settle a bill. This one involved a single family home on Yale Avenue in Westville owned by a wealthy doctor, named David Thomas, who lives out of state. He had simply not paid the bill for a decade. The sign went up, a long-term tenant contacted the doctor — and, according to court records, Thomas’s payment came in.
City Stays In Pre-Pandemic Mode
The City of New Haven is responsible for the largest number of foreclosure actions scheduled this Saturday: 11 in all.
These largely involve tax debts that go back years. While the city filed the actions, other agencies — including the WPCA and water authority — have liens on numerous of the properties as well.
City Tax Collector Maurine Villani kicked back a request for comment to mayoral spokesman Gage Frank, who reported in an email, “As far as the City knows, the sales are going forward, however that is potentially subject to change.” Frank said the city has not changed its policy on foreclosures for the pandemic.
One property owner facing a sale, Tony Butler, said he doesn’t fault the city for pursuing foreclosure.
Butler and other family members inherited a property on Shelton Avenue when a relative died. He had some trouble getting payment from tenants, some of whom “we were trying to help” when they hit hard times. “We had to go through three different eviction processes.”
The city has agreed to give him a 120-day reprieve from Saturday’s foreclosure sale, until January, Butler reported Thursday.
“I think we’re going to be able to take care of this one. We’re certainly praying,” Butler said. “I cannot in good faith and honesty blame the city. Everybody has to pay taxes.”
Some of the 11 properties properties originally scheduled for Saturday sales are empty houses, or in the case of 201 Ferry St., a vacant lot.
Take the rundown house and trash-filled lot at 102-4 Lombard St. That was owned by Russell T. Thompson; now it’s owned by his estate. The fiduciary never showed up in court to contest the foreclosure action, which was filed in June 2019, according to the state judicial database. The estate owed $6,272.94 in back taxes at the time dating to July 2, 2018.
Harold Cruz moved into the house there three years ago, he said. He was homeless; a kind person who was still living in one of the apartments agreed to let him stay in one of the empty rooms or free. He gave her his food stamps; she fed him. “The lady took me off the street,” he said.
Now everyone is gone but him. He said he knows about the upcoming foreclosure sale.
What will happen to him after that?
Cruz shrugged. “I’ll be homeless,” he said. Until someone else takes him in.