Last week, Gladys House had every reason to think she was about to see her property auctioned off for failure to pay her taxes, before someone swooped in to loan her the money.
"I always felt like it was going to be all right. I just didn't know how it would happen," House said.
Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, a law firm specializing in tax collection for government entities, had presented House with a tax bill for more than $28,000 on the property at 3619 Hurley Street.
The longtime Fourth Ward Activist and head of the Freedmen's Town Association has worked for years to preserve the neighborhood -- founded by recently freed slaves after the Civil War -- and keep the history of her community intact.
In the 1990s, House took over 3619 Hurley Street, a rundown property next door to her home. Through adverse possession (a.k.a. squatter's rights), House took over the property, cleaning up and repairing the house and building a business, the Affordable Carpet Depot, which opened in 2000.
To get a property through adverse possession, you have to repair it and pay back taxes. No one had paid any taxes on the place since the 1970s, House said, so she worked out a deal with Linebarger to pay off the taxes.
She'd just paid up everything she owed when she got a $7,000 tax bill. She told Linebarger there had been a mistake because this tax bill wasn't a part of her contract with the company. She went ahead and paid the bill and continued paying various tax bills as they arrived -- which pretty much sounds like some kind of tax hell -- until House said she had paid more than $15,000 in additional tax bills.
House appealed to every taxing authority she knew of -- Houston ISD, City of Houston, Houston Community College, Harris County Appraisal District -- and every politician she could think of to tell them about how she believed she was being overbilled, hoping for help, she said. She got no response. Though over the course of this whole odyssey, she did develop a healthy dislike of all things Linebarger.
"There's no checks and balances with Linebarger," House said.
Finally, after a battle in court with Linebarger -- which she lost -- House decided she wasn't paying any taxes until Linebarger refunded her the money she believed she was owed in overpayment of taxes (more than $15,000 by her count.) So Linebarger put 3619 Hurley Street on the list to be auctioned off on May 7 unless House came up with more than $28,000.
As the date of the auction approached, House noticed expensive cars driving slowly up and down her street looking at the property, she said. People kept stopping by to ask if she was selling any of her equipment from the Affordable Carpet Depot. She chocked it all up to scare tactics -- or possibly people letting their inner vulture run wild -- but she was still sure some solution would present itself to keep the property in her hands.
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Finally, with the auction only hours away, she found a business associate who also hates Linebarger -- that proverb "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" pretty well sums it up -- and offered to lend her the money, which she'll pay back with interest, she said.
"Everything was done in the 11th hour," House said. "I didn't panic, because I kept having this feeling that everything was going to be all right, so it wasn't like I was going to have to do cartwheels on the lawn when it all worked out," she said.
Now House is focused on the next steps -- in this case, working with an attorney who specializes in property tax litigation to sue for a refund on her overpayment with interest and penalties, she said. House is also working to get a small business loan to grow her business so she can afford to keep fighting to be refunded for overpayment in taxes.
"It takes money to get justice," she said. "Hopefully, soon I will have resources to sue all taxing authorities and get my overpayment with interest and penalties."