Douglas County Treasurer discusses home equity theft

3,600 properties are up for grabs, totaling over $7 million in back taxes.
Douglas County has over $7 million in unpaid property taxes.
Published: Feb. 15, 2023 at 5:24 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Douglas County has millions in unpaid property taxes it’s been trying to collect from homeowners and business owners from 2021.

The number is big: $7.2 million.

Because of that, 3,600 properties are now up for bid.

“Unfortunately, sometimes people ignore the problem, hoping it will go away,” said Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing.

Investors agree to pay what’s owed, continue to pay the property taxes for the next three years, then offer the home back to the owner for back taxes, fees and 14% interest. If they don’t pay, the investor now owns the place and can sell it and keep all the profits.

“They stand to make the money, and I won’t have nothing after living here for 25 years,” said Scottsbluff homeowner Kevin Fair. “I get absolutely nothing.”

It happened to Fair’s home a few years ago. He started owing $588, and an investor paid the tax lien. That ballooned to $5,200, and he couldn’t afford to keep it. The only reason he’s still living here is because he’s taken his case to court.

“We issue the treasurer deed, and then we’re pretty much done with the process,” Ewing said.

Ewing’s been at his job for 16 years. He says he understands the frustration and wonders why, if there’s potential someone could lose their home, the treasurer’s office gets involved.

Home equity theft is a growing problem for some Nebraska homeowners.

“I would like to see the treasurers out of the tax deed business,” Ewing said. “I believe the best and fairest process for a homeowner is to go through the judicial process, where you have a judge who is looking at all the facts and making a determination on what should be done.”

Meanwhile, Nebraska lawmakers have proposed a couple of bills, including one that would make the investor who sells a home give back the profits.

Those profits would be the leftover equity the original homeowner had in the house. Ewing isn’t a big fan of trying to notify homeowners even more that they haven’t paid property taxes; he says the county already sends out plenty of letters, and anything more will cost taxpayers.

There will be two hearings in the Legislature on potential changes to how Nebraska operates with tax liens -- dates for those hearings have not yet been set.