‘I wish they would have reached out’ – Solutions to help New Hampshire residents from having their property taken

Carol Stiasny’s single-wide manufactured home was sold at auction for $9,100 in unpaid taxes on Friday, January 26. Concord Terrace owner Dana Rood bought the property and evicted Stiasny.

Carol Stiasny’s single-wide manufactured home was sold at auction for $9,100 in unpaid taxes on Friday, January 26. Concord Terrace owner Dana Rood bought the property and evicted Stiasny. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Carol Stiasny and her son, Chris, share a laugh in their new kitchen at Salisbury Green in Concord.

Carol Stiasny and her son, Chris, share a laugh in their new kitchen at Salisbury Green in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Carol Stiasny and her son, Chris, check out the outdoor area of her new apartment complex at Salisbury Green in Concord.

Carol Stiasny and her son, Chris, check out the outdoor area of her new apartment complex at Salisbury Green in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Carol Stiasny and her son, Chris, look out of the garden level sliding door of her new apartment that is being renovated at Salisbury Green in Concord. The city took her home for unpaid taxes and sold it at auction in January.

Carol Stiasny and her son, Chris, look out of the garden level sliding door of her new apartment that is being renovated at Salisbury Green in Concord. The city took her home for unpaid taxes and sold it at auction in January. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Larry Davis in his garage that he has converted into his kitchen in Franklin.

Larry Davis in his garage that he has converted into his kitchen in Franklin. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Larry Davis looks out through his front window of his garage that he has converted into his home in Franklin. Davis has consistently struggled to stay on top of his taxes through the years.

Larry Davis looks out through his front window of his garage that he has converted into his home in Franklin. Davis has consistently struggled to stay on top of his taxes through the years.

Carol Stiasny and her son, Chris, share a laugh in their new kitchen at Salisbury Green in Concord.

Carol Stiasny and her son, Chris, share a laugh in their new kitchen at Salisbury Green in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Larry Davis in his garage that he has converted in Franklin.

Larry Davis in his garage that he has converted in Franklin. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI / Monitor staff

Published: 06-28-2024 2:36 PM

The clock kept ticking as Carol Stiasny watched application after application get rejected. 

Her credit was too low. Most landlords didn’t accept pets. 

If she didn’t vacate her two-bedroom manufactured home by May 1, she’d be evicted. The date came and a notice landed at her front door. She wrote to the court, begging for an extension.

To be kicked out of her own home with nowhere to go felt backward. She’d paid $15,000 outright when she bought the property in 2015 after a divorce.

She owed over $9,000 in outstanding property taxes by the end of 2023 when the city of Concord seized her home. In January, it was sold at auction to recoup this debt.  

As she drove by apartment complexes, she’d write down phone numbers for leasing offices and take note of new construction on her street. 

On the other side of the city, she found a two-bedroom apartment that was available in mid-June for $1,540. With a $30 fee for pets, her monthly rent would be $1,570. It was the first place she found that accepted her application. 

It was her only option but far from a solution. 

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Her new monthly expenses would be more than double what she paid in property taxes and park fees for her single-wide, 1,000-square-foot home she shared with her two adult sons with disabilities. 

She never heard from city leaders or employees in the aftermath of the sale. 

“There’s enough homeless people on the steets now,” she said. “But they’re still trying to push people out.”

Peeling paint lined the walls of Stiasny’s new apartment when she first saw it. The property manager assured her a new coat would be dry by the time she unpacked her things. The bathroom would be redone, too.

Stiasny was excited to tell her son that the eat-in kitchen had enough space for him to continue to make his homemade hot sauce. Perhaps that was a silver lining - this time the wafts of sautéed peppers wouldn’t make them cry the way they did in their old kitchen. 

Fresh paint or not, Stiasny’s income hasn’t changed much. In April, her hours at work were reduced, but her son started receiving disability payments, which will contribute to their rent. Still, she’s no more able to pay her new bills than her old ones. 

If policies from other New England states existed here, Stiasny’s former house with the porch and grill out front might still be hers. 

To advocates, experts and lawmakers, the following solutions could help people remain in their homes while supporting cities and towns in recouping revenue: 

■Implement a “circuit breaker” system, where if a property tax bill exceeds a certain portion of a homeowner's income, the state would pay the rest. New Hampshire is the only state in New England without such protection. 

■State funding to help communities recoup the cost of offering tax credits and exemptions. 

■Introduce penalties for municipalities if excess equity is not returned to former owners after a tax deed sale and create a uniform process for taking property 

■Mandate that towns and cities inform residents of all assistance options before their property is taken for unpaid taxes

“Town officials should be helping people with those applications and they should be offered. They should be encouraged. But I think they’re under pressure,” said John Tobin the retired director of New Hampshire legal assistance. “They’re under a certain pressure not to grant too much tax relief because it affects the bottom line, especially in the poor towns that are struggling financially anyway.” 

‘The way we fund things’ 

When a homeowner stands to lose everything, Tobin wanted towns or cities to take all measures possible to help them keep their property. 

Looking back on his long career at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, that was wishful thinking. 

Before retiring in 2014, Tobin represented hundreds of clients in jeopardy of losing their homes for unpaid taxes. Over the years, he saw a pattern, he said. Oftentimes, homeowners were unaware of the tax deed process or the laws allowing the government to seize and sell their homes, let alone any assistance programs that could have helped them. More often than not these were elderly retirees who had paid off their mortgages and now lived on fixed incomes. 

In theory, local officials should be the ones to advertise assistance programs and enroll residents. That was rarely the case, Tobin found. 

As a result of his lawsuits, many got a second chance. 

“I started filing these cases to say the town has to start over,” he said. “The theory being: before town or government takes away property – something valuable – they have to give people notice of what their rights are.”

These cases paused the process. But the root cause of poverty in the state with among the highest property tax burden in the country isn’t solved by mailed notices or lists of exemptions. 

Elected officials have little incentive to help needy residents since any relief stands to deplete their budgets, Tobin said. The state offers no mechanism for towns or cities to recoup lost revenue from tax exemptions or welfare expenses.

“Our system is so locally based that the poor people and the poor homeowners and the mobile homes are all in the poor towns that have a low tax base,” Tobin said. “Forcing them to give tax relief just aggravates, exacerbates that problem and it’s all because of the way we fund things.”

County registry of deeds data shows that New Hampshire communities have seized 4,000 properties in the last decade due to unpaid property taxes, according to a Monitor analysis. 

Local leaders blame unfunded mandates from the state that create added pressure on their communities and afford little leeway when it comes to taking property. 

“Downshifting of costs (or revenue losses) from the State of New Hampshire continues to be an enormous problem,” wrote Franklin City Manager Judie Milner in her 2024 annual budget report. “Over the past several years, the taxpayers of the city have absorbed hundreds of thousands of dollars in downshifted costs or losses in revenue with no additional benefit or return.”

Concord Mayor Byron Champlin agrees. Over the years the legislature has voted to reinforce property taxes as the de facto funding source, he said. 

“The state increasingly is reducing the state funds that are going to cities and towns,” he said. “We only have certain tools as a municipal government to provide all the services that people are looking for and all the amenities that people say they want in a vibrant community.”

New Hampshire state law requires that communities help their residents. Every town must have a welfare department ready to assist with applications and in each community, tax relief in the form of credits and exemptions must be offered. 

In Concord, Champlin hopes that the city’s resources are well advertised. But to him, there is an obligation on homeowners to seek out these programs.  

“The individual has some responsibility to look for resources,” he said. “I think we should make it as easy as possible, but I still think that the ultimate responsibility is on the individual.”

Stiasny thinks the city had some responsibility too.

“I wish they would have reached out more and been more helpful instead of just taking it,” she said. 

Towns and cities do have leverage to help homeowners find their feet. Current state law provides latitude to forgive the interest that balloons an overdue tax bill into an impossible figure for poor residents to pay back. But few tax collectors offer it, the Monitor found.

The interest is what Stiasny points to when she thinks of what would have helped to save her house. By the end of the year, right before the January auction, she owed over $2,700 in interest. 

“They could cut back on the interest rate, especially with people struggling. They don’t need to charge all that interest,” she said. 

Tobin sees a simple solution: the state should fund tax credits and exemptions. When a homeowner is awarded $100 off their bill, for example, the state should provide that $100 to the municipality. 

Then, no local revenue is lost for helping those most in need. 

“You want towns to be able to balance their budgets. So I really think the state government has a real responsibility helping to fund local property tax,” he said. “That would ease the pressure on everyone.”

New England outlier 

Those who have the least tend to pay a higher portion of their income toward property taxes. But in New England, New Hampshire stands alone for how little help is offered to those in need to manage their tax bills. 

When property tax bills exceed a certain percent of a person’s income in Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont, the state pays the rest. The circuit breaker provides reprieve, especially to the elderly, disabled and those on fixed incomes. 

“The state kicks in the difference,” Tobin said. “The town gets its money and the taxpayer gets relief.” 

In these states, certain income thresholds trigger a tax break. In Massachusetts, it’s 10 percent of total income for seniors over 65 years old. In Vermont and Maine, relief is available for all homeowners depending on earnings. 

But in the Granite State, the only state-funded assistance is the Low and Moderate Income Property Tax Relief program. But the name is a guise for a marginal amount of help. 

Property tax assistance is available to those who meet a number of criteria: income must be less than $37,000 for single homeowners, $47,000 for married couples and the home value must not exceed $220,000. 

But the relief only applies to the Statewide Education Property Tax, which is a small portion of a resident’s tax bill.

In 2023, Concord’s tax rate was $26.86. The state education portion made up $1.57, or about 5 percent of the bill. For Stiasny’s bill, this tax made up $22.14 of her bill that year. 

Last year, the Department of Revenue Administration processed nearly 6,000 claims for property tax relief and awarded $900,000 in credits to homeowners. This means on average, residents saw a $150 reduction in their bill.

The program would be far more effective if it applied to the entirety of a homeowners tax bill, including local and school taxes, said Tobin. 

“The only relief you get is what you paid for that tiny sliver of the bill. It’s a joke and the amounts are low, the income guidelines are low,” said Tobin. “It’s a mirage.”

‘Hell no’

New Hampshire’s top politicians are quick to promise a three-word phrase on the campaign trail: “No new taxes.”

At a forum earlier this month, Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, former U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte and former state Senate President Chuck Morse – who are all running for governor – promised this same refrain to the “tried and true time-honored tax question.” 

In a heated partisan race, the candidates vying for the corner office square up against each other on abortion and immigration. When it comes to taxes, the three are in unison.  

New Hampshire should remain as one of two states in the country without an income or sales tax, they said.

Morse’s record speaks for itself, he said at the National Federation of Independent Business’ candidate forum. Under his leadership in the state Senate, New Hampshire ended its interest and dividends tax. As governor, he would continue to cut taxes. 

“I would not support an income tax, I would not support a sales tax and I would review every tax that the state of New Hampshire has,” he said. “This is all making a difference in the success story that we have called New Hampshire.”

For Warmington, her justification is personal. As a child she watched her parents go bankrupt, she said in an interview with the Monitor. Her family’s financial struggle is reflected by many in the state. 

“The last thing working families in our state need right now is to be burdened with any additional taxes,” she said. “Not only would I oppose a state income tax or sales tax, but I would veto it if it were to come to my desk. 

Ayotte didn’t need many words to send the crowd into roars of applause. 

“Hell no.”

Former Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, who did not participate in the forum due to a “scheduling conflict,” also declined to be interviewed by the Monitor for the same reason. The Monitor reached out to her campaign staff on May 20. They said she could not find the time to talk. 

To Ayotte, New Hampshire’s high property tax burden is the fault of imbalanced budgets. State and local funding needs to be “fiscally responsible,” she said, with municipalities paying particular attention to their budgets in revaluation years. 

Towns should consider lowering their tax rate, she said, to avoid pricing people out. 

“Looking at the tax rate and saying, ‘well we should reduce the tax rate because this much increase in value is not going to be sustainable for local people to stay in their home’,” she said. 

The issue also lies within the state’s lack of housing. With record-high median home prices that hover at $500,000 and a rental vacancy rate of less than one percent, housing in New Hampshire is often sparse and expensive. 

“It's our neighbors, that is police and fire, teachers and young people. It’s a whole host of people that can’t find affordable housing,” said Ayotte. “This is an issue that we all need to work on. And if I was governor I’m going to encourage more development of affordable housing.”

Morse agreed. Solutions to the state’s housing crisis lie with lawmakers in Concord. If lawmakers are going to encourage development across the state, local incentives need to be in place to assist these projects, he said. 

“I believe in leading by example. The fact is, in 2021 when we built that budget, we actually sent $50 million back to the taxpayers to try to give property tax relief,” he said. “As governor, I’ll do it again.”

To Warmington, though, there are more direct actions the state can take to lessen the burden on local budgets. The first is funding municipal employee retirement programs. 

“That was a responsibility that got passed on down to the local community and I am a very big advocate that that is a real promise broken to our retirees,” she said. “We should make sure the state is meeting its obligation there, which would translate into a lower tax burden on local municipalities.”

Public school funding is another area where the state could alleviate costs, she said. Instead, education vouchers are diverting students, and money, away from the system. 

The reality is that the heaviest tax burden, and the threat of losing property, falls on working-class families, she said. 

“We need to be focused on making sure our families are put in a situation where they can put a roof over their kids' heads and feed them and clothe them and give them a great education and still retire with dignity,” she said. “That is really basic. It's not too much to ask, and we should be putting in policies that are driven with those kinds of goals in mind.”

A future revenue source for local communities – legalized marijuana – remains in conversation in the State House. The legislature again failed to pass a law this year, putting any future discussion about such a solution down the road. 

‘This is where I die’

Years before the Monitor began its Seized and Sold series, Larry Davis was on the front page of the paper.

The city of Franklin had voted to take his ramshackle house – a converted garage – for unpaid taxes. 

He was forlorn, defeated and had no means to catch up on his overdue tax bill that continued to grow because of daily interest.

A reader decided to pay off his entire bill and put money down towards future payments. That was in 2016.

Eight years later, Davis is behind on his taxes again.

From the window of his makeshift kitchen, Davis choked up as he looked across the field of his property to the house he grew up in. 

For years, Davis’ family lived across the way. He bought the old garage on the property and has converted it into his bare-bones home. Hooks and wires run across the ceilings, threading extension cords across the unfinished main room which serves as his kitchen, with a shower in the back. He didn’t have running water until two years ago. 

Davis’ nephew would often run across the lawn to spend time with his uncle. Now, he’s 20 years old and working two jobs. 

Without his help, Davis, 70, would have no means to pay off his property tax bill. 

For the last 10 years, Davis has circled the tax deed process, narrowly avoiding losing his home thanks to the generosity of others.  

Now, a lien remains on his property and he owes the city more than $2,600 in back taxes. 

Davis, a retired stonemason, is housebound with no source of income. He is dependent on his scant Social Security checks, wishing he saved more when he had the chance. 

“It’s just embarrassing because I had lots of money, but I had more fun,” he said. 

Now, he’s enrolled in the city’s elderly tax exemption, cutting his property value by nearly half. Last year, his house was valued at $146,000, but the exemption cut the assessment to $69,400. 

 Often he still has to call on his nephew for help, though. 

He wants to die in his house and have his ashes scattered along the property where his nine other friends and family are. Then, his nephew can have the place. He’s drawing up blueprints to leave behind for him renovations Davis would have completed if he had the time, not to mention, the money. 

“It don’t get no better than right here,” he said. “I ain’t moving away. This is where I die.” 

 

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