AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

While 'super liens' ransacked Georgia homeowners, eyes glazed over

"Super liens," as they came to be known, had an assortment of super powers when it came to seizing  delinquent taxpayers' homes:

More powerful than an ordinary lien against a property. Foreclosures faster than a speeding bullet. Able to seize all the equity with a single unpaid bill.

Something else made them tough to defeat: to laypeople – mere mortals in the world of property tax law – the super lien process was incomprehensible. Try explaining step-by-step how investors could take over a house for a fraction of its value, and how unpaid taxes paired with some meager unpaid utility bill could give the investors an opening, and you may as well be describing quantum physics.

Foes of the process, including attorneys who defended homeowners and a lawmaker who tried to cut super liens off, say the complexities worked against them in their fight.

"When you start to get into the nitty gritty of it, people's eyes just glaze over," said attorney Mark Thompson, who took the fight to the Georgia Supreme Court, which vanquished super liens in a decision handed down this month. "That's how they bamboozled judges about this stuff. It's complicated. It's hard to follow."

Click here to find out how super liens work, and how the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first exposed the damage done by super liens in a 2013 investigation.

Click here to read an investigation into the problem by Channel 2 Action News.

Click here for today's AJC story about how super liens have finally lost their super powers.

State Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, tried to put a stop to them two years ago, sponsoring House Bill 81 during the 2015 legislative session. He became incensed when he heard about a Cherokee County family losing their home over unpaid taxes and a medical bill of about $400.

His bill went through hours of hearings before the Ways and Means committee, Turner said. Then it became mired in the political process, getting stuck with the Rules committee.

Turner said he had a difficult time getting some of his colleagues interested because he couldn't make them understand the complex process.

"Your first reaction is that, there's no way this could happen," he said.

To understand what Turner's measure would have done, you have to first understand how super liens work. Essentially, House Bill 81 would have prevented investors from buying some unrelated debt to use for a super lien unless they owned the debt at the time of the tax levy. They wouldn't have been able to wait for a tax auction, go looking for other unpaid bills, then buy that debt so they could craft a super lien.

And if they did impose one, they would have to wait 300 days – giving the delinquent homeowner more time to sort out their financial affairs and, if they so desired, come up with the money to save their home.

After a Georgia Court of Appeals decision put super liens on ice later that year, Turner didn't reintroduce his bill. The state Supreme Court upheld that Court of Appeals ruling this month.

"At the end of the day, the judicial branch did their job and got it right," Turner said. "I'm happy to see that people are no longer going to be taken advantage of by these predators."

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About the Author

Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper since 2010.