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How do you keep families in their homes?

Gregg Wright

As the clock ticks for several Olmsted County individuals and families, commissioners are hoping to find a way to keep them in their homes.

Twenty-three homes on a list of 47 facing tax forfeiture next month have people living in them, according to Heather Bestler of the county’s Property Records and Licensing Office.

“I think it’s to the benefit of the county to keep these people in their houses,” said Olmsted County Commissioner Gregg Wright, noting county services would likely face increased costs if the homeowners become homeless.

Among those facing possible forfeiture is a 64-year-old Rochester woman living on disability checks that total about $12,000 a year.

Last month, county housing director Dave Dunn offered her case as an example of the challenges being face. He said she was able to make ends meet until a special assessment on her home started to overwhelm her already tight budget,

“I don’t have any idea house she’s been able to do it, but she has been,” he said.

The city has forgiven the $7,200 assessment costs and wiped out related penalties, but Bestler said that leaves $4,500 in taxes remaining, which she won’t be able to overcome without help.

Existing regulations provide for a potential payment plan, but it requires a down payment that could be difficult for some homeowners.

Bestler said she and Mark Krupski, the Property Records and Licensing Office director, have been visiting homeowners facing forfeiture to let them know what options exists. Last year, everyone facing the loss of their home signed up for a payment plan.

So far, Bestler said 16 of the 23 homeowners have received a personal visit, but it’s unclear how many will be able to make the down payment.

She noted only one of the occupied homes facing forfeiture has a mortgage, which means the remaining 22 properties are paid off.

In the mix facing forfeiture is a divorced father of three and a couple with one spouse battling cancer on the list. The majority of homeowners are between 40 and 60 years old, but two or three are in their 80s.

The one common thread is they have all faced several years of not paying property taxes.

Last month, Dunn proposed two options that could keep people in their homes. One would provide a loan to cover back taxes, possibly putting off repayment until the home is sold. The second would have the county take ownership and lease the house to the original owner.

Both came with concerns that kept commissioners from making a decision between the two.

The county could lose the loan payment under the first option if other liens trump the county’s claim.

On the other hand, if the county takes ownership, it could face hefty costs related to work to meet rental requirements.

On Tuesday, Dunn said staff needs more time to develop a program, which means the May 14 deadline faced by homeowners couldn’t be met.

Commissioner Jim Bier later asked Assistant County Attorney Brent Walz to look into options to create a policy to help occupants facing unique hardships.

“We would want to have a lot of leeway,” he said, noting the policy should allow commissioners the opportunity to ensure the option isn’t abused.

At the same time, he cited long-term benefits if people can keep their homes with a little help.

“It would be better to keep these people in their houses,” he said.

Dave Dunn

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