One intent with the Our House D.C. Newsletter is to periodically profile the trials and tribulations of Black homeowners in the District, particularly in Wards 7 and 8, and share success stories.
In a recent newsletter, we shared the story of Mildred Chappelle, an elderly woman whose home fell into disrepair resulting in significant tax liabilities and the threat of losing her home at 4304 Jay Street, in N.E. Her nephew, Edward Chappelle, continues his efforts to resolve related issues surrounding the property and acknowledges steps that could have been taken to avoid this crisis.
The Chappelle family has owned the property for 96 years. It was purchased by her parents, Belton and Janie Chappelle, on June 20, 1925. Chappelle lived there for over 60 years, but in 2012, she moved in with her sister, Gladys, who provides full-time healthcare support due to her advancing age and dementia. She is also confined to her bed.
In 2012, her nephew, a dentist in Bowie, Maryland, assumed responsibility for managing her seven properties, including Jay Street. Due to a lack of financial planning, Chappelle says he is also responsible for legal and accounting costs and property tax fees exceeding $100,000.
Edward says he is weary of the process but determined to continue to take the necessary steps to resolve all issues with the District, thereby ensuring that the property remains in the Chappelle family for generations to come.
The Probate Division of the D.C. Courts
To this day, the property deed signed almost one century ago for the home remains under the name of Janine Chappelle. As a result, the family is forced to engage with the Probate Division of the D.C. Superior Court.
Probate is a legal process that takes place after someone’s death. It usually involves proving that the deceased’s will is valid, identifying the deceased person’s property and having it appraised, paying outstanding debts and taxes, and distributing the property per the will or state law. The Probate Division also handles the estates of incapacitated adults, estates of minors, trusts, and wills.
In the previous article, Chappelle’s nephew stated, “Unfortunately, it appears as though the system is set up to take assets from the elderly, and especially those whom the District has determined have properties. The possibility of losing a property that my family has kept for almost 100 years is incomprehensible and just plain wrong.”
Since then, Chappelle has had a change of mind. He now believes, “The probate system is a difficult one to navigate. Once the court is involved, costs escalate, and the record-keeping for anyone with assets is crazy and expensive.”
Indeed, as the Chappelle family knows so well, the probate process can take years to resolve.
The Impact of Mental Health on Estate Planning
Mental health issues can lead to poor financial decisions, including the negligent management of household affairs. “We must do a better job of removing the stigma so people can get proper help when they need it.”
“Aunt Mildred was a bright, intelligent woman, who unfortunately was a loner,” Chapelle said. “She did not reach out when she realized that she needed help.”
When asked, “Do you think anything could have been done to avoid these problems?” Chappelle said, “To avoid the problem altogether would have meant Mildred should have sought help before reaching a crisis. Recognition of an issue in African American families is difficult because of the stigma.”
This point is reinforced in a recent article by Amy Morin, in Verywell Mind, titled “Exploring the Mental Stigma in Black Communities.” She writes, “While Black Americans experience a wide range of attitudes toward mental health treatment, there’s a stigma surrounding mental illness that prevents some people from getting help.”
She continued, “It’s important to consider how the stigma — and the forces that create the stigma – may make it difficult to reach out to a mental health professional.”
“Beliefs about mental illness are formed through experience, cultural traditions, and formal education. Stories from friends and family also play a role. Some communities accept the idea that mental illnesses are health problems that require treatment. However, in the Black community, it is often the case that mental health problems are a sign of weakness and should be kept hidden from others.”
Open conversations in all communities, but especially in the Black community, can help break down the stigma and encourage more people to seek help. Getting such help is crucial long before health and mental issues arise, such as dementia experienced by Aunt Mildred.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 5.8 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, including 5.6 million aged 65 and older and about 200,000 under age 65 with younger onset
New Property Class for Jay Street
When the previously related article appeared, Aunt Mildred’s property taxes for 2021 had not been paid. However, Chappelle’s nephew said he recently cleared the debt to “avoid creating any other issues” with the local government.
“It seems that DCRA has reclassified [the property] to residential. I am not sure. All property taxes are clear. The tax bill for the first half of 2021 was a huge one, $17,000. But by the second half, they were back to the usual,” Chappelle said.
The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) has confirmed that according to the District’s Integrated Tax System Public Extract database, there are two properties at the Jay Street address: a single-family home and a garage. Both are now categorized as Class 1.
The District defines four classes of real property: Class 1 is a residential property including multifamily; Class 2 is commercial and industrial property including hotels and motels; Class 3 is a vacant property, and Class 4 is a blighted property. In a few years, the Jay Street property designation status changed from residential to vacant to blighted, and back to residential.
Last month, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) published the annual D.C. Tax Sale Report. Only Class 3 and 4 vacant and blighted properties were included on the list, which totaled 400.
Chappelle’s nephew is blessed with the resources to clear the property tax liabilities not only for 2021 but also in past years. Not all District homeowners can pay $100,000 in legal and accounting fees to keep their homes while remaining financially solvent.
What about those who are not as fortunate?
Homeownership does not necessarily have to end with OTR or DCRA. For example, the loss of a property does not just happen overnight. According to an official with the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer, numerous attempts are made to reach out to and resolve issues with homeowners in trouble with their property taxes for at least one year. Monthly installment arrangements can be made for delinquent property tax payments.
Property tax bills are mailed twice a year. The first half is sent in February, with payment due by March 31. A second bill is mailed in August, and payment is due September 15. If your tax assessment is wrong, you should contact OTR at (202) 727-4TAX and ask to speak to someone in the real property billing section.
If you are late with a payment, penalty and interest charges will be added to the amount owed. The penalty for the late payment of real property tax is 10 percent of the tax, and the interest for late payment is 1.5 percent per month.
If you do not pay your real property taxes, your home can be sold at Tax Sale to satisfy your tax liability.
Chappelle admits that “In hindsight, a more concerted effort to rehab the property could have been made.” He also knows of at least one other individual who went through the same thing.
Planning for the Future is Important
“When real property is cited for violation of local housing ordinances, citations can lead to significantly higher real property rates and eventually a tax sale by the government,” according to Deborah D. Boddie, a D.C-based estate planning attorney, and real estate broker.
“Without someone designated to address such matters, when we cannot, the outcome is disastrous. Knowing who will handle your affairs when you are unable is extremely important,” Boddie said.
“It is crucial that we plan for the future. A solid plan for incapacity or death ensures that wealth is maintained and transferred to the next generation. Opportunities for generational wealth can be lost in instances such as this,” she advised.