Death and taxes are the only certainties in life, but in the case of Gladys House, the actual tax bill has been a question she's been wrestling with since the late 1990s.
House is a longtime Fourth Ward activist and head of the Freedmen's Town Association who has fought for years to preserve the neighborhood -- founded by recently freed slaves after the Civil War -- from developers looking to tear down the shotgun homes and businesses so the area can be redeveloped. The efforts of developers have been largely successful and many have been priced out of the area in recent years. Now House may lose her own property to the tax collector.
Many of the buildings were abandoned and badly in need of repair in the area. In the late 1990s, House took over the home next door to hers, 3619 Hurley St., successfully laying claim to the property and completing a process known as adverse possession (basically a fancy term for squatter's rights), doing repair work and agreeing to pay the back taxes on the place to make the property her own. Taxes hadn't been paid on the place since 1975, she said.
House worked with the taxing authorities and Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, a law firm specializing in tax collection for government entities, to set up a plan to pay off the taxes on the property.
"They came up with a workable price and I paid it, and then I was celebrating because I was the first one to go through adverse possession successfully in Harris County, as far as I knew, and then I got a bill for $7,000," House said.
House told the law firm the bill had to be an error, that she had a contract and an agreement that didn't include a $7,000 tax bill. She said the company representatives told her to go ahead and pay the bill. She wrote a check and sent it in. Then, the next month a $3,000 tax bill arrived in the mail. She wrote another check, drawing from her savings to cover the cost. Another tax bill for $2,000 arrived about 30 days later. House says she ended up paying tax bills on about $15,000 that she hadn't agreed to pay when she made the agreement with Linebarger.
Over the next few years, she continued to pay her taxes, until 2006. By then she had paid Linebarger $15,000 in taxes and she told them she wasn't going her tax bill until they refunded the money they owed her. House told the firm she wasn't a cash cow and wasn't going to keep paying the bills. They told her they'd take her to court. She told them to go ahead.
Linebarger took her to court, where the judge found in favor of the company and she was ordered to pay $1,200 per month for a year and $4,000 in court costs. House said she knew she couldn't afford to pay the monthly bill, so she went back to Linebarger to ask if they could work out an arrangement that would take into account the money she paid outside of their original agreement and she would take care of the 2011 and 2012 taxes and call it even. The company representatives said no to the proposal, she said.
House, no stranger to political entities, went to every taxing authority she could think of -- HISD, City of Houston, Houston Community College, Harris County Appraisal District -- to tell them about how she believed she was being overbilled, hoping to get help, she said. She got no response.
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"I've gone to all the taxing entities in Houston. It's like they're all in cahoots with Linebarger," she said.
Now, the house, which she repaired over the years and turned into a business, the Affordable Carpet Depot, is scheduled to be auctioned off on Tuesday if she doesn't come up with the $28,000 in taxes that Linebarger says she owes. House is working on getting the money together to keep ahold of the property, but she said it's frustrating to be in this situation, because she knows she's already paid so much.
"If I didn't have faith in Yahweh, I couldn't keep on going, but you have to do what you can do now so you can go back and fight again later," she said. "Right now, I have no choice but to go ahead and pay the unjust fee."
Over at Linebarger, a representative (the kind that won't give you his name) said there was no record of House making the extra payments she said she had made, and stated that House is delinquent on her taxes and the property is scheduled to be auctioned off on Tuesday. You may not like it, and you may believe you're being overcharged, but paying that tax bill is just a fact of life, according to Linebarger. The kind of fact that leads to the auction block if you don't pay up.