A property in Park View with a hefty tax lien.
A property in Park View with a hefty tax lien.

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His name is Mark Alan Schwartz. He’s a 52-year-old Chicago lawyer. He owns a $1.7 million estate near Vail, Colo. And he’s played a key role in kicking impoverished Washingtonians out of their homes over tiny unpaid debts.

The Washington Post has done yeoman’s reporting on the manipulation of the District’s tax lien sales, by which investors buy up liens on properties whose owners have fallen behind on their taxes—-sometimes by as little as $150—-tack on thousands of dollars in fees, and then foreclose on the properties. Today, the paper published the first account of the worst offender, a mysterious company called Aeon that bought 1,300 D.C. tax liens between 2005 and 2009.

Much about the company remains unknown, starting with some very basic details like its place of operation: Its listed address is at Chicago’s Willis Tower, where it is in fact not a tenant. But the story of Aeon, the Post reports, “begins and ends” with Schwartz, whose name (or family) is seemingly connected with every aspect of the company. Which of course raises the question of how an out-of-towner leading a “high-end lifestyle” is permitted to wreck the lives of poor D.C. residents over small debts.

Following the Post‘s initial reports, the D.C. Council proposed several measures to tighten oversight of the tax lien sale program, and Mayor Vince Gray called for a moratorium on tax lien sales. Last month, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced the Tax Auction Bidder Reliability Assurance Amendment Act, which would ban entities that are delinquent on taxes anywhere in the United States or that D.C.’s chief financial officer deems to have an “unsatisfactory record of business conduct or compliance with the law” from participating in tax lien sales.That bill, which has yet to receive a committee hearing, would presumably prevent Aeon from buying liens in the future, given all the trouble it’s caused.

But would it prevent other Aeons from emerging? Had it been in place, would the CFO have known back in 2005 to stop Aeon from bidding? Probably not. There are lots of ways to make money off the poor, and they’re not about to disappear.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery