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Indianapolis Star Series: Blight Inc. - Examining Indiana's Tax Sale System

The Indianapolis Star recently ran a series entitled "Blight Inc." that tackled the issue of "how our government helps investors profit from neighborhood decay."  The series has eight separate in-depth articles written by reporter Brian Eason.  All of the work can be accessed via at this link: Bright Inc.  Mr. Eason and I’m sure others at the Star clearly worked hard in putting together a thorough investigation and analysis of Indiana’s real estate tax enforcement system.

Because I sometimes write about tax sales (see Category to right), I thought my readers and other surfers might want to know about the series.  Lots to read.  It’s impossible for me to comment in any detail on such a big project as Blight Inc. other than to point out that the series, in part, highlights a county’s struggle with, on the one hand, the need to collect delinquent real estate taxes and, on the other hand, the need to rehabilitate (or raze) abandoned properties.  Here is a quote from the last article in the series that summarizes the problem, according to the Star:

The Star’s investigation into abandoned housing revealed how Indiana’s tax sale system is undermining both public and private efforts to rehab distressed neighborhoods. The Star found that county treasurers across the state repeatedly sold run-down houses to investors who did not want them, and later let them go back to tax sale. Meanwhile, the system allowed a handful of large investors to amass hundreds of houses from county sales. But in the absence of any requirements that they rehab the homes, many have fallen further into disrepair, costing the city millions of dollars in code enforcement, maintenance and emergency runs.

As an aside, interestingly, the Star quoted state Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis who suggested blight could curtailed by making Indiana a non-judicial foreclosure state:

Merritt pointed to another culprit [of blight] the length of the states mortgage foreclosure process, which he thinks contributed to the huge number of vacant properties following the housing crisis. He wants to move Indiana away from its judicial foreclosure process toward a [faster] non-judicial system, as is used in both California and Texas.

Due in part to the Star’s work, Indiana lawmakers will be looking at reforming Indiana’s tax sale system.  The nature of the reforms is not altogether clear or settled.  If and to the extent changes to Indiana’s tax sale or foreclosure systems are made, particularly if they effect commercial real estate, I’ll write about them here.

What remains unclear to me is how a county can collect delinquent taxes without publicly auctioning off the subject real estate to the highest bidder, whoever that may be.  While I agree that abandoned housing and blight (even commercial property blight) are serious problems, I’m not fully convinced that the tax sale system is to blame.