Taken for taxes and ‘waiting to die’: A N.H. homeowner struggles to keep his home

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house as his partner, Jessica Helfenstein, worries about their future this past January. At that point, Jones and Helfenstein were working to reclaim their home after the city took ownership for unpaid taxes.

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house as his partner, Jessica Helfenstein, worries about their future this past January. At that point, Jones and Helfenstein were working to reclaim their home after the city took ownership for unpaid taxes. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

John Jones was able to grip his left hand during a April 25, 2024.

John Jones was able to grip his left hand during a April 25, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

 Cards adorn the living room of John Jones and Jessica Helfenstein’€™s home in Franklin.

Cards adorn the living room of John Jones and Jessica Helfenstein’€™s home in Franklin.

 Jessica Helfenstein smiles down at John Jones in their home in Franklin on April 25, 2024.

Jessica Helfenstein smiles down at John Jones in their home in Franklin on April 25, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

John Jones smiles as he completes a round of walking around using a walker his home in Franklin with the help of physical therapist Justin Levesque in April 29. By that time, Jones and his partner, Jessica Helfenstein, had bought back their house after it was seized by the city of Franklin. They remain in the home.

John Jones smiles as he completes a round of walking around using a walker his home in Franklin with the help of physical therapist Justin Levesque in April 29. By that time, Jones and his partner, Jessica Helfenstein, had bought back their house after it was seized by the city of Franklin. They remain in the home. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

The ladders from John Jones painting business lean against his Franklin home. He is no longer working.

The ladders from John Jones painting business lean against his Franklin home. He is no longer working.

John Jones starts a round of walking around using a walker his home in Franklin with the help of his physical therapist Justin Levesque on April 29, 2024 as Jessica Helfenstein looks on.

John Jones starts a round of walking around using a walker his home in Franklin with the help of his physical therapist Justin Levesque on April 29, 2024 as Jessica Helfenstein looks on. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

LEFT: Franklin City Clerk Michelle Stanyan, shown in the city hall office in February, is responsible for tax collection and the home-deeding process.

LEFT: Franklin City Clerk Michelle Stanyan, shown in the city hall office in February, is responsible for tax collection and the home-deeding process.

John Jones starts a round of walking around using a walker his home in Franklin with the help of his physical therapist Justin Levesque on April 29, 2024.

John Jones starts a round of walking around using a walker his home in Franklin with the help of his physical therapist Justin Levesque on April 29, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

John Jones’ work truck sits in the driveway of his Franklin home last January.

John Jones’ work truck sits in the driveway of his Franklin home last January. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house on January 16, 2024. Jones could hardly move is left arm and was confined to bed most of the time.

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house on January 16, 2024. Jones could hardly move is left arm and was confined to bed most of the time. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

ABOVE: Carol Stiasny of Concord is moving into a new apartment in June after her home was sold at auction for unpaid taxes on Jan. 26.

ABOVE: Carol Stiasny of Concord is moving into a new apartment in June after her home was sold at auction for unpaid taxes on Jan. 26. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house on August 9, 2023, six months after the stroke that left him without the use of his left arm.

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house on August 9, 2023, six months after the stroke that left him without the use of his left arm. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house on October 18, 2023 as he tries to move his left arm.

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house on October 18, 2023 as he tries to move his left arm. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house as his partner,  Jessica Helfenstein adjust his bed while he watches Gunsmoke on August 10, 2023.

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house as his partner, Jessica Helfenstein adjust his bed while he watches Gunsmoke on August 10, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house on October 18, 2023 as he tries to move his left arm.

John Jones lies in the hospital bed in the living room of his Franklin house on October 18, 2023 as he tries to move his left arm. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Photos and cards adorn the living room of John Jones and Jessica Helfenstein’s home in Franklin.

Photos and cards adorn the living room of John Jones and Jessica Helfenstein’s home in Franklin. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI / Monitor staff

Published: 06-07-2024 3:25 PM

Modified: 06-10-2024 10:48 AM


The overdue tax bill facing John Jones felt like a death sentence.

The lifelong resident of the Live-Free-or-Die state had been late to pay his taxes before, but this time was different.

Jones, 66, owed $5,097.44 to the city of Franklin, a working-class former mill city at the foot of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region. Compounding interest added another $724 to his bill, which felt like an insult on top of injury. After a stroke devastated his body and his income, the growing tax bill became an impossible figure to pay.

While Jones recovered at home with his partner Jessica Helfenstein by his side, the Franklin City Council voted to seize his double-wide manufactured home valued at $49,600 – and nine others in the community – for a fraction of their worth.

“I paid over $30,000 for this place and now they get it for nothing. What a scam. That’s how they do it,” he said. “They don’t really care.”

Like in other states, local governments in New Hampshire have immense power to seize and sell properties.

But no other state is more dependent on property tax collection to fund day-to-day government, according to an April 2024 report from the Tax Foundation, a national think-tank. New Hampshire is one of two states without an income or broad-based sales tax.

Few programs exist at the state or local levels to help low-income homeowners pay their taxes. One lifeline created with federal pandemic relief funds ran out of money in March, with no plans to be replaced.

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“I didn’t even know any of this was going on because I was in the hospital,” said Jones, a retired house painter. “I was trying to stay alive.”

A Concord Monitor analysis of 10 years of deed transfers across the Granite State determined local governments have seized the property from owners who fell behind on their tax bills 4,000 times in the last decade.

Many were in a similar situation to Jones – the working poor, retirees, or those living on fixed incomes.

It happened to a Concord mother, caring for two sons with disabilities, who was furloughed during the pandemic.

It happened to a woman in Candia, 70, who inherited her late father’s home while living on a fixed income.

It happened to a widow in Rochester, 80, who rebuilt her home from the studs after she lost it all in a fire.

And it happened to a single mother in Somersworth, 53, who had the sheriff’s department knocking on her door with an eviction notice six days before Christmas.

Those who faced the threat of losing their biggest asset due to a bill that spiraled further out of reach echoed the same refrain: They hoped to die before the government took their property away.

“Everything was good until that day. I retired, took it easy and then I had that stroke,” Jones said. “I’m just waiting to die. That’s what I’m waiting for.”

What we found

New Hampshire state law gives tax collectors legal authority to seize people’s homes for unpaid taxes, often for a fraction of their worth.

The Monitor uncovered drastic inconsistencies in how towns and cities around the state interpreted and enforced these laws.

The Monitor analysis found:

■ One-third of the state’s municipalities defied a governor’s emergency order by taking ownership of homes for unpaid taxes during the pandemic. The rest interpreted the order differently and halted the practice.

■ Some owners were unaware the municipality had taken ownership of their property until after it happened due to undelivered certified mail.

■ Across a 10-year span, towns rarely waived interest on late payments, despite an ability to do so. Homeowners faced interest charges that in some cases surpassed the original amount owed in taxes.

■ At the local level, pandemic relief money was used to pay for day-to-day government operations, like salaries and raises for government employees, as opposed to helping the poorest residents pay their taxes.

■ Transparency of the process varies, with some communities discussing taking properties at open public meetings, while others make these decisions behind closed doors, they say, to protect the reputation of the owners.

To build a database of all property seized by municipalities from 2013 to 2023, the Monitor accessed tax deed records from all 10 counties that show when ownership was transferred to the local government.

The Monitor could not determine how many people have been able to recover their homes – or how many have permanently lost them. No state agency keeps track of this process that is financially crippling to residents or whether local governments are following state laws correctly.

However, municipalities must publicly advertise when they plan to sell properties.

Since 2022, JSJ Auctions and NH Tax Deed & Property Auctions, two prominent auctioneer companies, have sold over 200 properties taken through tax deeds statewide, according to auction history on their websites and public fliers.

In January, Carol Stiasny watched as a green and white auction sign was planted in front of her Concord home 10 weeks after the city took it for unpaid taxes. She owed just over $9,500 on her manufactured house valued at $14,100.

The new owner bought the property for $9,100 and gave Stiasny six months to find a new place to live. Next week, she plans to pack up everything she owns and move into an apartment complex in a different part of the city.

She purchased her single-wide two-bedroom home in 2015 after getting divorced. It’s where she hoped to start anew, living with her two sons with disabilities and their cats.

Stiasny was three years behind on her taxes by the time the city sold her house. She said Concord leaders told her, “It’s too late to do that, you can’t do that now,” when asked about ways to repay her debt and salvage her home.

“I feel they could have been more supportive that way,” she said. “You can always do that if you really want to put your mind to it and really want to help somebody.”

The rationale for laws allowing the government to seize and sell property is simple: Other property owners shouldn’t have to pay more for those who can’t pay their bills.

“When you get behind on taxes, it costs other taxpayers money,” said Dana Rood, the man who bought Stiasny’s house and another manufactured home at the January Concord auction. “So what the city is doing by being fair and progressive on the taxes is great for everybody.”

How towns and cities wield this power varies greatly between communities, according to the Monitor analysis.

Over the decade of records the Monitor reviewed, some communities choose not to take ownership by filing a tax deed and letting debt pile up while residents continue to live in their homes.

“We need to keep people paying their taxes because that’s a fairness issue with everybody else in town, but we are not interested in taking someone’s home and property from them,” said Eric Fiegenbaum, the town administrator in Madbury.

The town of 1,800 has not seized a single property.

Other municipalities reluctantly took properties but allowed homeowners to remain living there, working with them on a payment plan to regain ownership.

The resort town of Ossipee in the White Mountains took 83 properties but never threw anyone out of their homes, officials said.

“The town worked with them once it was deeded,” said Kelli Skehan, the Ossipee town clerk and tax collector. “So nobody lost their house for the 17 years I’ve been here.”

A few seize properties and auction off homes with people still living in them, which is what happened in the city of Concord in January. Owners had an opportunity to repay all interest, fees and unpaid taxes to buy back the property before it went to auction, but often the price owed was out of reach.

“We really want to try to work with property owners to get their taxes paid. We don’t want to be in the business of taking properties. But unfortunately, based on the rules, we also have to follow the rules,” said Brian LeBrun, the deputy city manager for finance for the city of Concord.

By selling the five properties, Concord recouped $65,000 in unpaid taxes and interest, which is less than one-tenth of one percent of its $130 million budget. To those who lost their homes, it was a staggering sum that became impossible to pay.

Among New Hampshire’s 13 cities, poorer communities tended to seize property more frequently than those with more wealth.

For example, Berlin and Franklin, have lower median incomes, but the highest number of tax deeds per capita. By contrast, in Portsmouth and Dover, cities near the Atlantic coastline where median incomes are nearly double, more patient payment policies mean that properties are rarely seized.

In fact, Portsmouth deeded its first property in a decade last fall after the Monitor collected its statewide data.

Officials in Franklin justified their actions by saying state law compelled them to take ownership of Jones’ house for one-tenth of its total value.

Yet he only learned that he had lost ownership of his house to the city – and the availability of now-exhausted federal funds to help pay off his debt – when The Monitor knocked on his door last year. He was able to act in time before it was sold and use the Homeowners Assistance Fund to pay off his $5,000 balance.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu declined to be interviewed about the state’s laws, his administration’s executive orders, or the state’s tax burden on the working poor.

Instead, he issued a statement saying he did more for residents than his predecessors.

“Over the last seven years, Governor Sununu’s administration has downshifted unprecedented cash – not costs – to cities and towns, returning hundreds of millions of dollars in tax relief to citizens,” spokesman Brandon Pratt said in a statement.

Yet local officials say the state’s chronically underfunded public schools and retirement system for municipal employees have forced them to consistently choose between cutting their budgets or raising taxes on local homeowners.

‘What am I going to do?’

The wooden steps leading up to the front door of Jones and Helfenstein’s house have loose panels and the screen door is ripped at the bottom. But the home was theirs and had been since 2015, when they paid cash for the last place they planned to live.

Inside, elementary school photos with wide-toothed smiles hang by the door alongside painted handprints from their now adult children, who are 33 and 30.

They envisioned a life in which they could leave the house to their kids when they died, not lose it for an unpaid tax bill.

“My son, my daughter, they’re beautiful. They’re great kids,” he said. “You have to leave something for the kids.”

On the mantel above the fireplace, a wooden sign reads: “A father considers his wealth not in possessions but in the happiness of his family.”

Before the stroke, Jones had long been self-employed, painting houses and building bridges around his hometown of Penacook. When the pandemic hit, he put his ladders away and called it quits. He’d spent years earning $15 an hour, if that. His income was reduced to $850 a month from Social Security. With Helfenstein’s part-time job at the grocery store, it was enough.

They had been late on their taxes before but always paid them off. Then came the stroke, which changed everything.

For four months Jones ping-ponged between hospitals in Boston, Keene and Concord. Helfenstein spent most weekends driving down Interstate 93 to visit him in between shifts, before quitting her job to take care of him full-time.

Jones’ monthly Social Security check was the couple’s only lifeline for a few months, with Helfenstein paying off the bills she could before turning to her kids, sisters or father for $100 here and there to keep them afloat.

But in the middle of the night, Helfenstein found herself staring at the ceiling thinking, “What am I going to do?”

She’d surrendered her job so Jones could live with her, rather than a nursing home where he was headed. She moved the couch up against the wall in the living room and rented a hospital bed where he could sleep.

After weeks of convincing doctors that he had a safe place to recover, she never expected the city to pull it out from under them.

“I knew if I went there, he would go there and then it would be even worse. It would have been, ‘Who gives a shit, they want it, let them take it’.’ I knew better,” she said. “I kept telling myself you can’t give up, you have to keep going, and that’s what I did. I just kept seeing what we could do.”

Left to local discretion

Michelle Stanyan’s son told his second-grade class that his mom’s job is to take people’s money all day.

“Needless to say, I had to explain myself more,” she said.

Stanyan has worked as Franklin’s city clerk and tax collector since 2021. Although state law provides the framework for her roles and responsibilities, executing these responsibilities is left to interpretation by Stanyan, and other local tax collectors.

The process of collecting taxes happens like clockwork in Franklin, with a few months of wiggle room for homeowners to catch up.

Stanyan typically issues notices for overdue payments in April or May of each year. In July, the City Council voted to deed 10 homes last year for nearly $135,000 owed in back taxes in a city with an overall budget of $29 million.

She gave property owners another week before filing the paperwork with the county to take ownership. By then, six property owners paid off their bills. Jones did not, and the city took ownership of his home.

While Stanyan follows a consistent time frame each year for the process – she is already sending out notices for this year – other tax collectors may take a property through a tax deed once every few years, or so. The state exerts no oversight of the process.

Property tax collection is one of dozens of Stanyan’s responsibilities. She registers cars and pets and issues marriage licenses. Her office keeps track of vital records and sells hunting and fishing permits.

“We’re the frontline. We’re what people know, other than emergency workers. We’re the ones that they see every day. They see us from birth to literally death,” she said. “It can be challenging because sometimes it gets to you because we are human…This is my least favorite thing to do.”

When Stanyan mailed out notices last summer informing residents that the city was prepared to take possession of their homes, her office phone number was printed on the white piece of paper. If a homeowner called, she said she’d connect them to assistance programs or help enroll them in tax credits to help lower future bills.

But only if they asked.

“It’s a double-edged sword… You have to tell them it’s a courtesy and emphasize it’s courtesy because it is not a requirement,” she said. “You don’t want to do something that then becomes a standard.”

Jones never got the notice from Stanyan.

When the city sent a notice to Jones by certified mail, it ended back at City Hall with a yellow sticker that said, “Return to sender, unclaimed.”

Franklin councilors had already voted to seize the home by the time the letter was returned. The motion unanimously passed on a Monday night in July, with no discussion. Jones sat in bed at home, a mile down the road, unaware it was happening.

‘I should have died’

The day Jones had his stroke he woke up early and started a pot of coffee. Outside, he defrosted Helfenstein’s pickup truck before she left for her morning shift at the grocery store.

He came back inside and collapsed on the living room floor.

A year later, Helfenstein sat down on the couch and looked over at Jones. He’d given her quite the scare over the last 12 months.

“Everything is finally in place,” she said. “I can breathe.”

Jones watches “Gunsmoke” most days on a channel Helfenstein found that plays Western reruns after he exhausted his true crime obsession.

Before the stroke, he was rarely in front of the TV, outside in their yard, raking leaves or puttering around.

Weeks after Franklin took ownership of their manufactured house, Helfenstein called the city offices to inquire about a property relief program she learned about from the Monitor.

Stanyan then connected them with the Homeowner’s Assistance Program, federally funded pandemic relief aid, that helped them buy back their house.

Three months after their home was deeded in October, Helfenstein wheeled Jones into Franklin City Hall and he signed a check for $5,322.44, to clear the back taxes they owed.

“Now our life is a little bit mellower and that’s okay,” said Helfenstein.

Piece by piece they’ve started rebuilding their lives. Jones took a few steps with the help of a walker, built with an attachment where he can rest his left arm. Soon, they hope he can sleep in the bedroom again so the couch can return to its original spot.

The couple adopted a new kitten, Remington, in January after he was found in a dumpster nearby.

And it’s been over a year since they first feared they’d have to take down the photos that covered their fridge and the sign above the kitchen sink that read, “Martha Stewart doesn’t live here, it’s a good thing.”

“It’s been a lot,” said Helfenstein. “A lot mentally, physically.”

Helfenstein is now paid as Jones’ full-time caretaker, back to earning $17 an hour for 40 hours a week. She cashed her first paycheck a week before Christmas.

This year, their tax bill will be a little more manageable. Stanyan helped them apply for an elderly tax exemption with the city, which lowers the assessed value of their house, and subsequent property tax bills.

But after a year of close calls – defying doctors’ odds that he would recover, only to fear he’d lose his house – Jones has other expectations.

“I’m trying to die peacefully,” he said. “But it’s kinda hard when you’re dealing with aristocrats.”

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

Click here to read the entire series and to see what’s to come.