Justice Barn (copy)

Greater Waco Legal Services founder Kent McKeever, seen here outside the nonprofit’s office after it opened last year, is seeking $225,000 from the city over the next three years to provide property-related legal aid.

Shortly after the death of her mother in 2016, Rebecca found her grief followed by anxiety over an unexpected property tax nightmare.

Her mother’s house was now solely occupied by her brother, who is affected by a physical disability and relies on monthly Social Security checks worth $780. Unpaid fees of more than $75,000, related to local property taxes and federal Medicaid estate laws, soon piled up.

“We didn’t have the money to pay those taxes. … I was going crazy,” said Rebecca, who requested her last name be withheld.

She turned to Greater Waco Legal Services, a nonprofit that provides legal aid on an income-based sliding fee scale and does not turn away clients. Ownership of the home was then transferred from each of Rebecca’s siblings to only her brother, who qualified for a disability tax credit. The nonprofit also helped the family navigate the mounting taxes.

She said a different lawyer would have charged her at least $3,000.

Now, city leaders are considering a program to fund more property-related legal aid from Greater Waco Legal Services.

Advocates for the program said it would benefit property owners seeking to build family wealth and reduce the city’s spending related to tax-delinquent properties and code enforcement violations.

Kent McKeever, founder of the nonprofit and co-creator of the proposal, is requesting $225,000 from the city over a three-year period for legal work and workshops at community centers that would provide information on wills, death deeds, title clearing, probate and other property-related legal services.

The money would come from a city allocation already granted to Prosper Waco, a nonprofit that looks for solutions to education, health and financial security issues. McKeever and Prosper Waco Executive Director Matthew Polk presented the plan to city council members this week during a Budget and Audit Committee meeting.

“We think there’s a way to intervene early so that folks don’t run into those issues, which saves everybody time and money, and in the big picture, helps people be more financially stable because they’ve got those issues related to their home worked out,” Polk said.

By the third year of the program, 25 clients per month needing property-related legal aid could participate, and eight to 12 workshops would be hosted, according to the plan.

“They may not be as overwhelmed by the legal issues that, in their mind, seem a lot bigger than they should be,” McKeever said.

City benefits would include a reduction in the number of properties with title issues preventing sale or transfer, a reduction in the number of tax-delinquent properties, a reduction of code violations and a reduction in properties the city must manage because of tax foreclosures.

Council members, who will decide the fate of the plan at a later meeting, were generally supportive but said it will be important to stress that property owners will be able to do as they please with their property, to avoid the perception of a city-funded land grab.

District 1 Councilwoman Andrea J. Barefield, who represents East Waco, Texas State Technical College, McLennan Community College, Cameron Park, Timbercrest and parts of North and South Waco, said as much land as possible should remain with the people of the community.

“What I’m hoping that we’ll find a way to get to is how the removal of blight doesn’t look like gentrification in the same conversation, because it very easily can,” Barefield said. “We already know this. This is something we’re committed to thwarting.”

Assistant City Manager Deidra Emerson said the city must be cautious in its approach to revitalize neighborhoods.

“I think we have to be very careful about what the scope of work for this project is and ensuring that we are not giving the perception that we are taking property,” Emerson said. “That communication, that marketing of this program has to be very clear, because when we get into clearing title, we’ve got to make sure they know that it’s theirs, and that we have not funded something that is aiding and creating more distrust.”

Assistant City Manager Bradley Ford said the city already funds emergency home repairs and roof repairs. He said this program could serve as an avenue to rebuild trust with potential beneficiaries of those repairs. Grassroots Waco, a nonprofit that focuses on affordable housing, sometimes sends clients seeking city repairs to Greater Waco Legal Services so they can obtain a clear title.

“(The proposal is) not about saying, ‘This property should go to this,’” Polk said. “It’s about identifying barriers to that owner, who is a local resident, doing what they need to do and want to do with the property.”

For Rebecca, strife brought on by legal issues took a toll on her family. Tensions were heightened but later subsided when the tax payments were resolved.

“I’m talking to my brothers and sisters again,” she said.

She also spends her time caring for another brother who relies on federal programs for cancer treatments, and she provides room and board to another extended family member.

She said she cannot imagine facing her current responsibilities while simultaneously navigating complicated property tax pitfalls without affordable legal representation.

“Programs like that do help,” she said. “… God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.”

This story has been updated to reflect more precisely the cause of the client's unpaid $75,000 debts related to her property.

Phillip Ericksen joined the Tribune-Herald in March 2015 as a sports copy editor. That November, he joined the news team. He has covered higher education, city hall, politics and crime.

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