Harris County Hits Homeowners with Significant Delinquent Property Tax Penalty Increase

The rise of property taxes in Harris County has become a challenge for many struggling to hold on to their properties, which is why the recent news coming from the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office via a press release this past week has gotten the attention of many Harris County property owners, who hope that their home doesn’t fall prey to the county as a result of their inability to pay their delinquent property tax bill and the subsequent penalties and interest that have been tacked on to the bill.

The Forward Times recently received a press release from the office of Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett, dated June 20th, urging property owners with delinquent property taxes to contact the tax office no later than June 30th – ten days from the press release.

The press release goes on to say that “Collection attorneys will take over the accounts,” and that “Penalties and interest rates will dramatically increase on July 1.”

Although the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office sends correspondence via mail to those who are currently in delinquent tax status, many Harris County residents are not on their e-mail distribution list or in receipt of the press release that was sent out, so the Forward Times has a responsibility to make sure all homeowners, who may be in delinquent tax status, are aware of what they could look forward to if they don’t respond accordingly.

Bennett states in the press release that her office “recently sent notices to delinquent account holders,” although the e-mail does not state when those notices were actually sent out to delinquent account holders.

More importantly, according to the press release, accounts will be turned over to private collection attorneys on July 1st, and those accounts will be subject to an additional 15-20% in fees. Additionally, individuals were warned in the press release that their property may end up in foreclosure, which could result in their delinquent property being sold at the Harris County Tax Sale.

“The last thing I want to see is property owners to lose their homes,” Bennett said in the email. “I want to work with homeowners to keep them in their homes.”

The Forward Times spoke with Leah Olive-Nishioka with the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office, who states that they want to work with these delinquent tax accountholders before it gets worse.

“We have been sending out notices since the accounts became delinquent, but we really want to work with everyone to avoid things getting worse,” said Olive-Nishioka. “Once these accounts are turned over to the collection attorneys, it makes it harder and harder for them to make arrangements and settle these accounts in a more manageable way. We hope they contact us immediately to avoid any further challenges.”

There has been a long-running conversation over the past several years, not only in the city of Houston, but all across the United States about the issue of “gentrification” and how many African Americans feel as if they are being squeezed out of their homes, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods near downtown, to make way for the influx of individuals seeking to move closer into the city to avoid longer drive times into the city for work and other amenities.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term ‘gentrification’ is defined as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.”

Another term found in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘disenfranchised,’ is defined as “depriving someone of a legal right, or some privilege or immunity.”

All one has to do is look at the state of many traditional Black neighborhoods here in Houston, and across America, to catch a true glimpse of how ‘gentrification’ has played a significant role in adversely affecting the livelihoods of African Americans on a daily basis, and how Blacks are being forced to fight for their own survival in their neighborhoods by dealing with, essentially, being priced out of the area as a result of ever-increasing property taxes.

When it comes to the African American community, owning a home has been one of the few ways in which African Americans have been able to acquire an appreciating asset, while building wealth for their family in the process. Over the years, especially since the mortgage collapse that this nation is still recovering from for almost 10 years now, many African Americans have found themselves having to deal with the ever-increasing rise of property taxes, which has forced many African Americans to either sell their property or fall into a delinquent state.

There is some potential relief and a few solutions available for many, if they respond in the few days given by the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office, to help avoid their property being foreclosed on or taken from them.

Bennett states in the press release that her office wants “to ensure that every property owner has the opportunity to be in good standing with the Harris County Tax Office,” and the taxing units for whom they collect, so she states the best way to do that is to contact the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office “no later than June 30 to set up a payment plan.”

Bennett states that property tax bill payments and payment plan applications can be completed through their website at www.hctax.net, or by contacting her office by phone at 713-274-8000, at all Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s branch office locations, or by email at tax.office@hctx.net.

The Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s Office Property Tax Division maintains approximately 1.5 million tax accounts and collects property taxes for 71 taxing entities including Harris County, and the Tax Assessor-Collector’s office collects more than $6 billion in property taxes each year.

So, not only will there be a lot of additional money made by increasing the delinquent property taxes by an additional 15-20%, there may also be a lot of property owners that will be placed further at risk of losing their property as they are seeking to catch up and recover from being in the hole.

The homestead exemption is another option that many homeowners may not be taking advantage of, and it is the single most important tax saver available to homeowners. Many seniors qualify for this option, but many have failed to take advantage of it because they may not have known.

Although property owners may have missed the deadline, they should still apply for the homestead exemption, while contacting the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office to inquire any relief they can be offered, and about their delinquent property tax accounts.

Homeowners in Harris County are eligible if they meet these requirements:

  • You owned and occupied your home on January 1 of the year for which application is made.
  • Neither you nor your spouse has claimed a residence homestead exemption on any other property, regardless of where that property is located.
  • A qualified property owner may apply up to one year after the date taxes for the year of application become delinquent (usually February 1).
  • Homeowners who are over-65 or totally and permanently disabled (as defined by Social Security) are eligible for additional exemptions, and become eligible on the date they turn 65 or become disabled. If a homeowner qualifies for the age 65 or older or disabled persons exemption, or the exemption for donated homesteads of partially disabled veterans, they must apply for the exemption no later than the first anniversary of the date they qualify for the exemption.
  • Totally disabled U.S. veterans are eligible for an additional homestead exemption, and there are several other exemptions available to disabled veterans and their surviving spouses.
  • Homeowners must file a completed application with all required documentation beginning January 1, and no later than April 30, of the year for which they are requesting an exemption.
  • Pursuant to Tax Code Section 11.431, a homeowner may file a late application for a residence homestead exemption, including an exemption under Tax Code Sections 11.131, 11.132 and 11.133 after the deadline for filing has passed if it is filed no later than one year after the delinquency date for the taxes on the homestead.

To apply for a Homestead Exemption, you must submit the following to the Harris County Appraisal District (HCAD):

  • A copy of your valid Texas Driver’s License showing the homestead address.

This requirement may be waived if you are:

  • a resident of a facility that provides services related to health, infirmity, or aging; or
  • certified for participation in the address confidentiality program administered by the AG
  • The license must bear the same address as the property for which the homestead exemption is requested (homestead address) unless you are:
  • Active duty military or their spouse, showing proof of military ID and a utility bill
  • A federal or state judge, their spouse or a peace officer whose address information has been omitted from your driver’s license. You must provide a copy of your application for the driver’s license.
  • If you do not have a driver’s license, you may submit a copy of a state issued personal ID showing the homestead address.
  • A completed Homestead Exemption Application showing the homestead address
  • Proof of disability, for those who are applying for an exemption due to disability

Specific questions about exemptions, values or name and address changes should be directed to HCAD at 713-957-7800 or online at www.hcad.org.

The Forward Times encourages all Harris County property owners to contact HCAD to see if you qualify for the homestead exemption, and contact the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector’s immediately to make arrangements and set up payment plans with the Tax Office, so as to avoid putting themselves in harm’s way – or worse – losing their property.