Thousands of Cleveland water customers at risk of losing home due to water department tactics

Tax liens placed on customers' homes
Posted at 6:03 PM, Dec 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-20 14:00:23-05

Thousands of Cleveland water customers are at risk of losing their homes due to drastic tactics deployed by the Cleveland Division of Water.

Our investigation found homeowners with past due water bills are being targeted--some who owe just a few hundred dollars.

"It just got my blood boiling," said Sherri Gordon, " because I lost my home because of them."

Gordon is among nearly 8-thousand homeowners the Cleveland Division of Water slapped tax liens over the last 3 years.

Gordon says the water department claimed she suddenly owed a $3,000 water bill for water she says she never used.

Plus, she says there were no leaks.

But instead of working with her, Gordon says the water department slapped what eventually became a $30,000 water tax lien.

It's a tool that Ohio municipal water departments--unlike gas and electric companies-- are granted under Ohio Revised Code to collect past due water bills

And Cleveland's Division of Water is enthusiastically using it--often targeting the sick, elderly and disabled.

Our exclusive News 5 investigation obtained water tax liens filed with the Cuyahoga County Auditors Office by the Cleveland Division of Water for years 2013 through 2015.

We found 7,925 tax liens--nearly half ( 3,651) filed just last year.

In fact, the Cleveland Division of Water has been so aggressive, nearly four times as many homeowners are facing tax liens since 2013.

It's a policy that's raising concern at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland as well as housing policy experts.

"I think it does contribute to the foreclosure crisis," says Katherine Hollingsworth, Legal Aid Society Senior Attorney.

It's a policy the City of Cleveland is pursuing amid a foreclosure crisis that has generated 25-thousand foreclosures in Cuyahoga County alone since 2012.

"What causes us significant concern," says Hollingsworth, " is that there are often times when the water department is not properly billing customers."

And while no one know exactly how many can be blamed on water tax liens it may have unintended consequences.

"It's a red flag," says Frank Ford, a respect housing analyst who has done significant research into Cleveland's foreclosure crisis.

"This should be looked at carefully," says Ford, " because I think there's some evidence that if we are not careful about how we go about collecting--if we are too aggressive--we end up shooting ourselves in the foot."

Ford says of 3,651 water tax liens in in ten resulted in foreclosure and one in three ended up vacant.

Vacant and abandoned homes can lead to increased crime and vandalism as well as significant costs to taxpayers to demolish them--$10,000 for each home.

Join us for a 30-minute News 5 special investigation on Dec. 22 at 6 p.m.