Despite governor’s order, hundreds of properties seized for unpaid taxes during pandemic

The auction sign outside the Concord Community Center before the auction to sell off properites on Friday, January 26, 2024.

The auction sign outside the Concord Community Center before the auction to sell off properites on Friday, January 26, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu made consistent executive orders as he managed the response to the pandemic. Among those was an order to prohibit the seizure of properties.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu made consistent executive orders as he managed the response to the pandemic. Among those was an order to prohibit the seizure of properties. AP file

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 06-01-2024 8:44 AM

Modified: 06-03-2024 5:40 PM


At the start of the pandemic, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu wanted to make sure no one lost their home.

Like governors around the country, he used his executive powers to suspend mortgage foreclosures and issued a moratorium on evictions. And in the state with the highest property tax burden, he ordered municipalities to stop taking ownership of homes for unpaid taxes.

Most obeyed; others didn’t.

From March 13, 2020, to June 11, 2021 – the duration of New Hampshire’s state of emergency – 75 towns and cities across the state seized 242 properties from Granite Staters, according to a Monitor analysis of tax deed records from the state’s 10 counties.

On the flip side, 140 communities – including the state’s two largest cities of Manchester and Nashua – did not take a single property for unpaid taxes during this time.

Concord took 10 properties and sold two during that period. That was the third-highest number of seizures in the state.

Who was right and who was wrong isn’t something the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, which was tasked with enforcing the governor’s orders, wants to talk about. Lawyers there, including Attorney General John Formella, declined to answer questions about violations of Sununu’s 25th emergency order.

Sununu’s office also declined an interview request from the Monitor to talk about the order and its duration. Instead, spokesperson Brandon Pratt provided a statement, indicating that towns and cities violated the governor’s directive.

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“As you know, the emergency order lasted the duration of New Hampshire’s State of Emergency to ensure that Granite Staters could remain in their homes at a time when the pandemic limited their ability to pay taxes,” Pratt wrote.

New Hampshire state law allows local governments to take ownership of properties if an owner fails to pay the taxes for three years. Known as filing a tax deed, it’s a process that can hit those with limited income – like the working poor and elderly – the hardest, with strict penalties and compounding interest burying homeowners further in debt.

Two-thirds of municipalities, like the city of Berlin, interpreted the orders plainly and did not issue a single deed throughout the state of emergency.

The rest either ignored the order or followed a different interpretation, like the guidance from the New Hampshire Municipal Association, and continued to seize property for unpaid taxes. A few seized property and even sold them during the pandemic.

‘Relief to citizens’

When Sununu issued his 25th emergency order on April 3, 2020, he cited business closures and stay-at-home decrees that were crippling household incomes. He foreshadowed the looming tax bills that were due on July 1 and he gave towns and cities the option to forgive all interest on unpaid taxes.

“I encourage all the municipalities to utilize this authority where they are able to provide that relief to their citizens,” he said during a press conference the day the order was issued.

While forgiving interest was optional, another part of the order providing an important layer of protection for residents was not.

“Foreclosure proceedings related to late payment of property taxes are hereby suspended for the duration of the State of Emergency,” the order read.

The COVID-19 state of emergency expired in New Hampshire on June 11, 2021.

“Residents and businesses are facing unprecedented challenges brought on by COVID-19, leaving some without the ability to pay these bills,” the order stated.

Under normal circumstances, once a homeowner misses a property tax payment in New Hampshire, the clock starts ticking.

Once a property tax bill is past due for 30 days, interest begins to accrue on the outstanding balance at 8%. After a year, a lien can be placed on the property, which ensures the municipality gets paid if it’s sold. Then, interest jumps to 14%. If the bill is still unpaid after three years, the property can be taken through a tax deed, transferring ownership to the city or town.

To buy back their property, residents need to repay all interest, fees and unpaid taxes. Otherwise, the municipality can sell it after 90 days at a public auction to recoup the debt owed.

Interpreting the rules

In Berlin, where a Converse sneaker factory and old paper mills were once the backbone of the economy, the city saw a spike in deeds in 2022 primarily because it did not take a single property for two years prior.

“We weren’t allowed to tax deed,” explained tax collector Holly Larsen.” We had an order by the governor that there was to be no tax deeding so that gave them an extra two years.”

Berlin seized 207 properties for unpaid taxes between 2013 to 2023, according to a Monitor analysis of county records. This is the highest number statewide, but in 2020 and 2021, the state’s northernmost city gave property owners a break.

Instead, in 2022, 47 properties were seized for unpaid taxes, more than double the average in a typical year.

Berlin was one of 140 communities that had paused the tax deed process during the pandemic.

But in 75 other towns and cities statewide, municipal leaders continued to seize property despite the governor’s order.

At the same time, federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act were dispersed to communities across the state, but local governments rarely, if ever, used that money to forgive unpaid tax bills directly. Instead, a state program called the Homeowner Assistance Fund was created to assist with past-due bills.

In Laconia, one of New Hampshire’s smaller cities in the Lakes Region, four properties were taken by the local government during the pandemic. Although three regained ownership, one lakefront home was sold through a sealed bid.

The property was seized by the city in September 2020 for nearly $40,000 owed on back taxes and interest for a home that was valued at $160,000. Bidding began on May 4 and was open until June 23, 2021, just as the governor’s state of emergency expired. It sold for $120,300.

In other communities, local leaders were unaware of the governor’s orders.

In Barrington, a town near the state’s seacoast, which is home to 9,000 residents, local leaders took ownership of 108 properties in the last decade, one of the highest rates per person in the state.

Throughout the pandemic, the town took seven properties.

Linda Markiewicz, who was the town’s tax collector for the last 11 years before retiring in April, said she did not know of any moratorium.

In other communities, tax collectors were aware of the restrictions, but their interpretations differed.

In Haverhill, Jennifer Boucher, the town’s tax collector, viewed the governor’s order as a pause on the eviction process, not the taking of properties. The town filed 15 tax deeds to acquire property for unpaid taxes, but did not remove anyone from their properties.

“We weren’t able to evict anyone because there was a moratorium on evictions. The former owners were staying at their properties while the town had owned them,” she said. “Once that was up, then we resumed normal activities and started doing the evictions.”

Haverhill sold 35 properties at a public auction in September 2020 for $143,400 total.

Boucher deciphered the order with the help of the town’s legal counsel, she said.

“I didn’t think that there was a moratorium on the deeding but there was a moratorium on the eviction,” she said. “I could be mistaken but we worked with our attorney.”

Properties in Campton, Canaan, Grafton and Salem were also seized and sold at public auctions during the pandemic, as well.

Lack of clarity

Over the course of the pandemic, the governor issued 123 executive and emergency orders.

Some issued their own rules, others were extensions of previous provisions.

With state mandates changing weekly, the New Hampshire Municipal Association was hosting Zoom calls for towns and cities to help decipher the new directions, as well as sending email notices and publishing information to their website with new orders.

With Emergency Order 25, which suspended the tax deed process, the municipal association submitted a series of follow-up questions to the governor, said Stephen Buckley, the director of legal services.

By the association’s count, the ban on filing tax deeds lasted just under three months, as opposed to 15 months.

“We understood the moratorium on issuing tax deeds expired on July 2, 2020,” said Buckley. “It was just a short brief period of time.”

The municipal association based their opinion on two factors – they viewed Sununu’s suspension of the tax deed process to be an extension of his moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. And with the Homeowner Assistance Fund now in place to help struggling homeowners, these protections no longer seemed necessary come July 2020.

Three months into the pandemic, Sununu repealed Emergency Orders #4 and #24 which paused evictions and foreclosures. Although the repeal of these orders did not specifically mention property taxes, the municipal association thought the same logic would apply to the tax deed process.

They offered the following advice to their towns and cities as a result: “Municipalities may resume issuing tax deeds on or after July 2nd.”

At the time, the municipal association was talking to Attorney General John Formella, who was legal counsel for the governor during the pandemic, and Matthew Broadhead, who was the senior assistant attorney general.

Despite being responsible for enforcing the emergency order, the Attorney General’s office declined an interview request from the Monitor.

“While we appreciate your invitation, we would have to politely decline an interview due to the fact that in their previous 2020 roles, AG Formella and Attorney Broadhead’s involvement would have involved conversations covered by Executive Privilege and Attorney-Client Privilege, therefore, it would not be appropriate for either of them to comment publicly,” Michael Garrity, the public information officer for the Department of Justice, wrote to the Monitor.

The Attorney General’s Office would not clarify or comment on the expiration of Emergency Order 25, Garrity explained.

“We would be unable to provide legal advice or research related to documents that are part of the public record,” he said.

Coming next

The way that New Hampshire’s communities execute tax deed laws varies across the state. In some places, local leaders are quick to take and sell property from their neediest residents. In others, sympathy for the homeowners’ inability to pay means that payment plans are agreed upon. In addition to the executive order violations, an upcoming Monitor investigation, Seized and Sold, also found the following:

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

■Homeowners were charged interest that ballooned their initial tax bill, which in some cases, surpassed the original amount owed.

■Towns rarely waived intere st payments on late taxes, despite an ability to do so, which often proved the biggest hurdle for property owners to pay off their debt.

■ During the pandemic, the governor recommended forgiving all interest owed, but few towns chose to do so.

■Public knowledge of the process varies, with some communities discussing taking properties at select board or council meetings, while others make these decisions behind closed doors, in theory, to protect the reputation of the owners.

■Pandemic relief money was used at the local-level to pay for day-to-day government operations as opposed to helping the poorest residents harmed by COVID-19.