The Tax Auction Block
Sará Reynolds Green: We have been blessed to have had land passed down to us by our ancestors. I'm holding a deed now. It's of my great grandfather, Robert Green. 1862, purchased 20 acres of land for $15. And that land is the land that we are now farming on Saint Helena Island.
Trymaine Lee: Sará Reynolds Green is part owner of the Marshview Community Organic Farm on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. She comes from a long line of farmers and generations of her family who've nurtured the land and what grows from it.
Green: Tomatoes, cucumbers, peanuts, sweet potatoes, cabbage, collard greens, string beans, peas, corn, you name it.
Lee: Just up the road from the farm, Miss Green's husband, Bill Green, runs a restaurant called Gullah Grub. The two of them together form a culinary powerhouse representing the Gullah Geechee culture.
Green: Well, the Gullah Geechee people are the people that came from various parts of Africa, mostly West Africa, Central Africa, the lower part. It's all over. Wherever the enslaved Africans came from, some of them landed here on St. Helena Island.
They weren’t able to communicate with each other because they were taking Africans from different parts of Africa and different tribes. So one part of the Gullah Geechee people is the development of a language and they developed the Gullah language which is a mixture of all the dialects that were here.
Lee: St. Helena Island is part of the Gullah Geechee corridor which spans the Atlantic Coast from Florida to North Carolina. The Gullah people are descendants of formerly enslaved people, most from West Africa who obtained the land at the end of the Civil War. For 400 years, the Gullah people have passed down their language, their art, and their traditions. And for the last 150 years, they passed down their land.
Green: And I think that that's testament to their belief that if they had a piece of land, that they could survive and thrive, and then have something to pass down to the next generation. They revived themselves to gain dignity back into their lives again after suffering from slavery. So it's so important that we pass that history down to our children and to the world that we are survivors. They were able to sustain themselves on what little they had.
Lee: But that land, their culture, and their existence is at risk. (MUSIC)
Archival Recording:: Hilton Head Island was so well positioned with our wide beaches, natural beauty, gorgeous golf courses, culture, and Lowcountry hospitality to be your place for safely reconnecting.
Lee: One of the next islands down the coast from Miss Green's farm is Hilton Head, South Carolina. And with its prime ocean front real estate, it's become a hot spot for vacationers.
Archival Recording:: Play golf on Hilton Head Island, voted the number one golf destination in North America. More than 30 courses by some of the greatest names in golf. Start planning your trip to the golf island today.
Lee: Golf island and the hordes of mostly white tourists and part time residents who flock to it is a relatively new phenomenon to this part of the coast. When Miss Green was growing up, the outside world felt distant. These islands separated by vast stretches of water. For Hilton Head, it wasn’t until 1956 with the construction of the James F. Byrnes Bridge that cars could even get to the island. (MUSIC) But it's more than just weekenders that are threatening the Gullah population.
Green: In South Carolina, the first Monday in October is auction day.
Lee: Every day, more of the Lowcountry is gobbled up by buyers from all around the U.S. doing what are called tax delinquent auctions.
Maria Walls: I'm Maria Walls. I'm the Beaufort County Treasurer and you are at the 2021 Delinquent Tax Sale.
Lee: When property owners fall behind on their taxes, their land is put up for auction and sold to the highest bidder--
Archival Recording:: --50 now, 55. I've gotta 150 right here, now 155. Anybody 155? Here, now, 160. Now, 165. All in, all done. Sold it. $160,000, number 182. That's how we're gonna do it now--
Lee: The Beaufort County Tax Auction was held on October 4th of this year and it's just one of thousands of tax auctions that happen every year throughout the country. And many tax auctions have become a breeding ground for predatory practices, especially in places with stubborn pockets of poverty and tough job prospects like the Lowcountry.
Archival Recording:: If you’re a broker, you’re working for a bank, a trust, somebody that's here as a paid bidder, and you’re here to buy property debts, you probably need to be near the front.
Lee: These auctions combined with gentrification and rising taxes are threatening Black land ownership and the existence of historic communities like the Gullah Geechee.
Green: We wanna live in harmony, but we don’t want to be the minority in the community. (LAUGH) You know? We want to maintain our livelihood. And in order to maintain our livelihood, we've got to be here, you know, in our way of living.
Lee: After passing land down through the generations, falling behind on taxes could mean their land, their inheritance, their culture, winding up at auction. And that can happen for as little as a couple hundred dollars in unpaid taxes.
Joseph Walters: It's a situation of do or die. If you don’t get this money, that's it. So it'll be shortly they runnin' us off this island.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. (MUSIC) In the United States, property ownership is wealth. But tax deliquent auctions are eroding Black ownership across the country and stripping that wealth away. Is there anything that can be done to save the Gullah land and the generations of families who depend on it? Meet Joseph Walters.
Walters: Yeah, my name is Joseph Walters. Basically, I was raised in Savannah and raised right here on Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Lee: He grew up mostly in Savannah, Georgia, about 35 miles south of Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Mr. Walters grandparents lived on Hilton Head and that's where he spent of his summers as a kid.
Walters: Everything here was beautiful, man, all the seafood, crab, fish, shark. Everything that you wanted was here. And my grand daddy used to, you know, grow all the sweet potatoes and, man, they was, "Ooh, Lordy." There was nothin' but eatin' here.
Then, you know, we like to go by the water and by the ocean and, you know, watch the sunrise and the sunset and everything. So this was the place to be. It was so beautiful. You didn’t have to worry about cars and traffic, like, just to have the freedom to play and do, you know, basically what a kid could do.
Lee: Mr. Walters is 65 now. After joining the Marine Corps, he got married. And by the late 80s, he and his wife moved on to his grandfather's land. He and his two siblings inherited that land. So they now own the property.
Walters: We got on our acre 1.5 acres, you know. It's basically a clean property and we got trees, but not too much trees. We got two mobile homes on the property. It's pretty nice.
Lee: Joseph and his wife are both Gullah Geechee.
Walters: You know when you talk about Gullah Geechee, man, it's a whole different life from basically just bein' here in the country, and sayin' you from the country, and just sayin' that you live the Gullah Geechee life. When I grew up on this island, we lived off the land and off the culture here because the ocean is right here and you had all the seafood in the world that you wanted.
Walters: And it was a whole different celebration with the Geechee, you know. I remember my great grandmama, they used to stomp, and they used to sing, and they used to have their little Hallelujah time, and you know? It sounded like there was a ruckus in the house, but it was a Gullah Geechee thing, you know what I mean, yeah, with the singin' and praisin' and all that. It was a special life, you know what I mean?
Lee: The Gullah Geechee have held onto these traditions for centuries, partly through a deep connection to land and passin' that land generation after generation, like the Walters' family. What has it meant to have that piece of freedom in your family?
Walters: Oh, it's special. It's special. It's hard to even comprehend, man, because this is a dream come true here.
Lee: But holding onto that dream hasn't been easy. Black ownership in the United States peaked around 1910 at around 16 million acres, mostly on farms in the South. Less than 100 years later, Black farmers have lost 90 percent of their land. In the most extreme cases, it's been stripped through violence.
But more often than not, a threat comes in other ways. The government's use of imminent domain, unscrupulous banking and business practices, and legal frameworks that don’t recognize informal land ownership. On Hilton Head Island alone, the total acreage of Gullah Geechee-owned land has decreased by an estimated 70% since 1995. What was once Black-owned farm land is now covered with golf courses and gated communities. And that means the value of the land has gone up and developers have been looking at properties like Mr. Walters and seeing dollar signs.
Walters: One thing about Hilton Head is, you know, for you to have property and, you know, for the generation of family, you know, it's like my grand daddy used to say, you know. He tried to hold onto his property 'cause everybody was tryin' to come and get his property.
And he done seen that so many families was losin' property. So he wasn’t about to lose his property because he wanted to leave his property to his heirs, you know what I mean, and which nobody really knowed, I guess, that durin' the time, his time, you know, 'cause he was born in 1920, that durin' his time, that property value and everything on Hilton Head was gonna be like this, you know what I mean?
Lee: Mr. Walters felt like there was always someone keeping an eye on his property, but for the first few decades he lived here, he didn’t worry much about losing his land. He's been living on a modest fixed income because of injuries he suffered as a Marine which made it tough to work. But using his disability payments, he always managed to cover his expenses including his property taxes. Then a few years ago, his disability was re-evaluated and his income was slashed.
Walters: So, you know, my wages went down so that's what really caught me at that bad time and with everything goin' on. And so I wasn’t able to work, man. I wasn’t able to do nothin' at all, you know, within the last year. So, man, I caught it, man. I caught it.
Lee: In all that financial chaos, Mr. Walters couldn’t pay his property taxes for 2019. That left him with a tax debt of $1,000. Beaufort County mailed out a notice on April 1st of 2020. Thirty days later, the county took possession of his property. County officials put up a big yellow sign on Mr. Walters' yard. It said, "Seized."
Walters: Knowing if you can’t pay your taxes, that's what they’re doing. They’re gonna take your property or somebody gonna get the property.
Lee: And every month that went by without payment, the county tacked on more money to the debt.
Walters: And slowly, but surely after the deadline for tax time, every month, they add like $40 or $50 that you gotta pay per month.
Lee: By the end of September 2020, Mr. Walters still hadn’t been able to pay on his property taxes. By then, his debt to the county was around $1,350, a 35% increase. And in Beaufort County, if you haven’t paid your property taxes by October, your land goes to the auction block.
Walters: You were in a bind then. You're in a terrible bind.
Archival Recording:: Those of you sitting in the bleachers, if you want to bid, make sure you hold your card up or stand up.
Lee: The tax auction is a way for the county to recoup its losses. A list of delinquent properties gets thrown up on the screen and bidders have at it. And on October 5th, 2020, Mr. Walters' property was up for grabs.
Archival Recording:: All right, here we go. Right here, Joseph Walters here, 3,000. Hey, 3. There, 4,000. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40,000. 40, 45, 50, 55, 60,000 here. Now, 65, 70,000. I'm 65 on my right. I need 70,000. 70, anybody? Anybody (UNINTEL) 70,000? Sold it, 65,000. One, two, three.
Lee: Mr. Walters' property went for $65,000. The bidder paid the county the full price of the land along with the back taxes. (MUSIC) People have had their land auctioned off for as little as $2 in overdue property taxes. But Mr. Walters and the rest of the people whose land was sold in October 2020 didn’t lose their properties right away.
There's a process for people to redeem their land and hold onto it, but it's not cheap. First, they have to pay the back taxes to the bidder who now holds the debt. In Mr. Walters' case, that was $1,350. Then the landowner has to pay interest to the bidder.
It's calculated based on the winning bid amount and the amount owed goes up each quarter. Then there's some more fines and fees. And so by January 2021, three months after his land went up for auction, if Mr. Walters wanted to keep his land, he would owe the bidder a total of $3,235.90, more than three times the amount of his original $1,000 debt to the county.
Walters: Yeah, so, you know, that was hard. That was really hard then.
Lee: And there's a deadline to pay this off. After the auction, landowners like Mr. Walters have a year and a day to pay all of the money to the bidder or the bidder gets the land, free and clear.
Walters: So, basically, if you don’t pay your tax after that deadline, it's over with. Yeah, it's gonna really be hard for you to catch up and pay your tax then. Then, eventually, you’re gonna lose it.
Lee: And these sales are having a disproportionate impact on the Gullah community. In 2020, 188 of the 333 properties on the auction block were owned by Gullah families.
Green: It's a cancer. It's destroying lives. And it's creating trauma, additional trauma, to individuals and their lives and their families.
Lee: Sará Green says, "It feels like a slap in the face that in Beaufort County, a place where Black families have fought so hard to hold onto their land after Reconstruction and through Jim Crow, that families are now losing their land to the tax sale."
Green: Our ancestors worked, toiled many years, had the opportunity to pass a lot of land down to their heirs. We're hoping to hold onto that and also to share the culture.
Lee: Mr. Walters was thinkin' about all of this as he tried to piece together the money he needed to pay off his debts and save his property last year. But finding more than $3,000 is no small task, especially for someone in his situation.
Walters: I had never been stressed. I feel as though I've been stressed in my life. But that was a stressful time and which I felt the stress then because, you know, it's a situation of do or die. If you don’t get this money, that's it.
Lee: He worried he wouldn’t be able to save this land that his family has lived on for generations.
Walters: There's a lot of history here. And you’re losin' history, you're losin' your family history, you’re basically losin' your life, I'll say, you know when you come down to it. You’re losin' your life, man, 'cause just like my grand daddy say, you know, he worked too hard to get what he had, you know, to let people come and take your property any kinda way. But it's a struggle, man. So you gotta do what you can do to, you know, maintain.
Lee: But with a little bit of luck, he pulled it off. In January 2021, he paid off all the money and got to keep his property. We'll get into the details of this later, but for now, what you need to understand is that that good fortune was short-lived.
Walters: All of a sudden, you only have like a month and a half in between where you gotta start, you know, payin' your property tax again. So, you know--
Lee: Wow, wow.
Walters: --once you get behind, it's hard to catch up. (MUSIC)
Lee: As Mr. Walters was worried about paying off one year's tax debt to keep his land, the next year's property taxes were also adding up. And he was approaching another October deadline to once again keep his land off the auction list. When we come back, what happened to Joseph Walters and how the Gullah Geechee community is fighting hard to keep their land. (MUSIC)
(MUSIC) More than half of the people in Beaufort County whose land got sold at the tax auction in 2020 eventually paid off their debts and got to keep their land, like Joseph Walters. So if Mr. Walters keeps his land and the county gets its taxes paid at the auction, what's in it for the winning bidder? It turns out a lot.
Robert Bunting: Hi, I'm Robbie Bunting. I'm standing out here just on a property on Hilton Head Island.
Julia M. Spencer: Hi, my name's Julia M. Spencer. I'm a real estate adviser, investor. With this video, I wanna talk a little bit about Beaufort County tax and foreclosure processes.
Lee: These are from videos posted on YouTube that break down how to profit from tax sales. In fact, there's a whole cottage industry of speculators that's developed from the practice. And it's perfectly legal.
Spencer: If you wanna go to a sale and get a cheap property, just go to these really huge sales.
Bunting: And who knows, you might either earn some great interest on your money or you might end up owning a great piece of property.
Lee: That great interest, that's what's in it for the buyers. For example, the person who won Mr. Walters' property made a profit of almost $2,000. (MUSIC) And these tax auctions don’t just hurt Black people in the Gullah region. This is an issue across the country like in Cooke County, Illinois which has come under fire for making millions off of selling property tax debt in predominantly Black neighborhoods.
And thanks to pressure from advocates, Baltimore recently removed 2500 owner-occupied homes from the city's annual tax sale in the hopes of keeping more people in their homes during the pandemic. But in the South, Black families are at a higher risk for another reason.
Archival Recording:: With that, I am going to pass the microphone to Mr. Mitch Mitchell to discuss the importance of heirs' property here in the Lowcountry.
Lee: An heir's property is land that's been passed down without a legally designated owner, without paperwork spelling out exactly who owns what. It's common in Gullah families, but it also makes the property more vulnerable to things like tax sales and foreclosure. Sará Green of Marshview Farms has seen many Gullah families in the county lose their land this way.
Green: So what was happening is that when one person wanted to sell or one person was offered, "Okay, I could give you such and such amount of money for this land, for your portion and your interest in that land" and they wanted to sell, many times it forced other family members to sell as well because the lawyers would or the judges would come and give their decision, "If you all can’t agree on how to separate this land equally, then you have to sell it."
Lee: So every year organizers dedicated to protecting the Gullah community send a representative to the auction to basically plead with folks not to bid on any of the heirs' properties.
Archival Recording:: So my appeal to you this morning is that for those folks who are here, we have instructed them, asked them to introduce themselves and say heirs' property. Their appeal to those of you who are here is to not bid on that property out of respect for the landowners who find themselves in this unfortunate situation.
Green: You have individuals that wait until the last hour, the minute and wasn’t able to pay their taxes. And, now, they’re there on the mercy of the bidders to ask them, "If you would please not bid on this property. This is heir's property." And don’t you know, they would bid on that property and take it.
Archival Recording:: All right, this one's Henry Green, heirs' property. Tell you what, you gotta an easy number. I'll start you at 500, 6, 7, 8, 9,000, 11, 12, 1300, 1400, 14--
Green: But it's heartbreaking.
Archival Recording:: --15, 16--
Lee: Miss Green is helping Gullah families hold onto their land through education, like making sure folks whose property is sold at the auction know they have a year to get it back.
Green: We did a huge campaign to put the word out about property loss and we had a lot of social media press about it, and a lot of information went out.
Lee: Sometimes that education comes too late. And people like Joseph Walters, on the brink of losing their ancestral land, just need plain, old cash. (PHONE RINGS) And that's where Theresa White comes in.
Theresa White: Hello (UNINTEL)
Max Jacobs: Hi, how are you doing?
Lee: Our producer, Max Jacobs, caught her by phone on an especially busy day.
Jacobs: Do you mind just introducing yourself and your organization?
White: My name Theresa White. I am the founder and chief executive officer of the Pan-African Family Empowerment & Land Preservation Network.
Lee: Miss White is part of a network of people who've made it their mission to keep as much Gullah land in Gullah families as possible. Every year, Miss White gets a list of all the people in the county who are in danger of losing their property through the tax auction.
White: And we work with the families, some people on the list. And people have been paying their own taxes and other people have need assistance. So Mr. Walters was one of those people who needed assistance.
Lee: Just days before his property was set to go to the tax auction this year, Mr. Walters owed the county $1,300, essentially the same amount as last year.
White: He didn’t have the money to pay the taxes.
Lee: So the day we spoke with her, September 30th, she met Mr. Walters and his son at the Beaufort County Treasury Office to help pay his debt.
White: His son initially said that he was gonna pay $600 for him and they needed me to put in the rest. But, today, when we got there, they only had $500 and I paid the rest. And he was so happy. You would have thought somebody gave him a million dollars.
Lee: Miss White helps hundreds of Gullah families around the county in this same way.
White: We saved over $15 million worth of property and that number continues to rise every day.
Lee: This time of year, the work is nonstop.
White: And I got to go to back to my office, and do some quick paperwork, and try to get $5,000 sent down here before 5:00 tomorrow so I can pay some more property taxes. And I got, like, about four or five more hours worth of stuff to do.
Lee: And she spends a lot of time fundraising for the money to help pay these debts.
White: Well, this year, as in most years, most of our money comes into us from Go Fund Me, and through our website, and people sendin' in individual donations. We get donations from all the nonprofits.
Lee: Over the years, that money's let Miss White help Gullah families in two big ways: helping people whose land is sold at auction stay on their property, and helping people stay off the auction block all together. In fact, she's helped Mr. Walters in both ways. She paid his bill this year and she's the one who helped him keep his land after it was auctioned in 2020.
Walters: I'm just glad we got these blessed people to step up this year and last year to help us on out--
Lee: Yes, sir.
Walters: --'cause other that I don’t know what the situation would have been.
Lee: But there are a lot of people like him, folks who have trouble paying their property taxes year after year and end up on Miss White's list over and over again.
White: It's a struggle. As the taxes continue to go up and people don’t follow the steps, that we got (UNINTEL) for them to make it easier for themselves and insure that they'd never have to end up going to a tax sale again.
Lee: To keep people from getting trapped in this cycle, it's not gonna be enough for folks like Miss White to just raise money as a stop-gap. (MUSIC) There needs to be a policy shift. One step Miss White has taken is to join the Gullah-Geechee Land & Preservation Task Force, a group hoping to protect historic Gullah neighborhoods and keep people in their homes by making property taxes more affordable. Sará Green says, "Beyond just doing the right thing, the government should have a vested interest in protecting the Gullah community."
Green: Without the people, the culture's gone. And tourism is one of the highest-making money for Beaufort County. And without the culture of this island, tourism dollars will decrease because a lot of the people come to the island to see the Gullah people, to talk to them, to eat their food that tastes like what their grandmother used to cook. We have got to change the trajectory. We got to do something different and it has to come from policy, and it has to come from everyone coming together to come up with solutions.
Lee: Safe on his family's land, Mr. Walters says staying off the delinquent tax list is his highest priority and has become a family affair.
Walters: There's a plan in place now. Just like I say, my son done moved back home now.
Lee: Mr. Walters' son and grandkids have moved onto the property with him and his wife. The extra income from his son is helping Mr. Walters stay on top of his taxes.
Walters: So, now, we can pay all, you know, get our property tax paid earlier and everything so we can avoid all these penalties (MUSIC) and all that goin' on now. But other than that, I'm not even plannin' on bein' at no auction no more. (LAUGH)
Lee: No? You don’t plan bein' in that situation again.
Walters: No. No, sir.
Lee: What happens? I mean, obviously, there's wealth, right? One of the most valuable things that we have as Americans is your house and land.
Lee: When people in your neck of the wood lose property, you know, what's at stake here? Like, what are we losin'? Are we losin' more than just a house? Is it a piece of the culture also?
Walters: Oh, man. Phew. You lose history and land 'cause your parents, you know, your grandparents done worked too hard to get what they had for you to lose your property, man.
Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Walters: And for that, that is devastatin', man. It's so devastatin'. It's hard to comprehend for you to lose somethin' that your grand daddy and your grandmother and them had, you know what I mean? So it's hard, man. It's real hard, and which I didn’t see so many people did it till.
I'm not about to try to lose my property. You know, the law spared me and, you know, with my life and my kids. So, now, I got my kids jumpin' in with me, you know, to keep everything straight too 'cause I would like to leave what my grand daddy and my daddy left for me to them.
Lee: So if all goes well, Mr. Walters will be able to keep his land in the family. But the cycle has continued for other people in Mr. Walters' community.
Archival Recording:: --start the bid. How about 2500? How about--
Lee: At the tax auction on October 4th of this year, more Gullah families had their land sold. That means more Gullah people whose land is now in limbo, who now have a year to claw their way out of debt, or lose their family's legacy for good.
Archival Recording:: --have anybody 27 1/2? Sold it. 2500 in the back. You got it. (LAUGH) (MUSIC)
Lee: As we come to a close this week, get in touch. You can Tweet me at Trymaine Lee or write to us at Into America at nbcuni.com. That was Into America at NBC and the letters uni.com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Joshua Sirotiak, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown.
Our story this week was produced in collaboration with Lindsay Davis, Tracey Eyers, and Aliza Nadi from NBC's Race, Equality & Justice Unit. Special thanks to Stefanie Cargill, Erik Carlson, and Whitney Ince. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday. (MUSIC)