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Posted: 5/3/2001 3:23:18 AM EST
Sale of widow's home causes outrage
[b]Homeowners' group tried to buy property[/b]
By S.K. BARDWELL and ERIC BERGER
Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle
While public officials are outraged over the sale of an elderly widow's home because of unpaid property-owner association dues, information from a Harris County official shows the homeowners' group tried to buy the house at an auction.
Champions Community Improvement Association called for the auction of 82-year-old Wenonah Blevins' $150,000 home in Champions subdivision in March because she had failed to pay two years of homeowner fees totaling $814.50.
An e-mail from Constable Ron Hickman to county Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt detailed the March 6 sale and the three offers by two bidders. The association bid $4,200. The home was sold for $5,000 to Daniel Hilal, who initially bid the minimum $499.
Blevins, however, said she didn't know the association had initiated the foreclosure proceedings.
She said she put a check for the overdue maintenance fees in the homeowners' association mail slot last August and didn't know it wasn't cashed.
Attorney Marian S. Rosen, who represents Blevins, said her client had pneumonia at some time during the two years and may have neglected to pay some of her required fees.
She also may have mistaken correspondence from the association for junk mail because it was addressed to "Mr. W.L. Blevins," Rosen said.
Bob Cheaney, the association's accountant, said the group sends certified letters, and that Blevins' check was returned to her by registered mail.
The check was returned, Rosen said, because legal proceedings had already been initiated against Blevins. She said Blevins has no record that she received the returned check.
But Cheaney said, "At that point in time, it was not in the courts. It was in the preliminary stages. (Her check) was returned because it was not full payment."
Blevins, who has no living family, now resides with a friend. Her only companion, a house cat, is living with her neighbor. She had paid for the house, where she lived alone for the past 15 years.
A court hearing is set for May 18 on Blevins' suit to prevent the sale of the contents taken from her house, which are now in a storage facility. Blevins also wants the court to void the sale of her house and return it to her.
The auction has outraged local and state politicians, including legislators who scurried to pass laws to prevent such proceedings.
"It was an unconscionably stupid thing to do," said Bettencourt, adding that foreclosure should be used only as a last resort.
"They kicked an 82-year-old woman out of her home over 800 bucks, which is absolutely asinine," he said.
Al Brooks, association president, said he could not comment on the sale pending the outcome of Blevins' lawsuit.
The association did not bid on the home on Blevins' behalf, Rosen said.
Upon Bettencourt's request, the county attorney's office agreed to look into the association's actions and study the matter to determine if the office has jurisdiction.
Bettencourt was not the association's only critic Wednesday.
"We have received at least 30 calls this morning, calling us Gestapo and Hitler," Cheaney said.
"There's no way we can put a good spin on this; it's a horrible story. We never, ever wanted to sell property out from under someone just because of maintenance fees."
In Austin, meanwhile, two area GOP legislators -- Sen. Jon Lindsay and Rep. Peggy Hamric -- began applying pressure on the homeowners' association.
"This is simply unfair," Lindsay said.
As early as today, he is expected to introduce a bill that would force a homeowners' association that auctions a foreclosed home to pay the original owner the difference between the home's appraised value and the auction price. In Blevins' case, she would be paid $145,000.
But Lindsay admits it will be difficult to pass the bill in this legislative session with less than four weeks remaining.
Lindsay and Hamric also plan to add a pair of amendments to legislation relating to homeowners' associations.
One amendment would make the rules by which an association could auction a foreclosed home similar to those followed by taxing entities, including cities, counties and school districts. Such entities must allow an original homeowner to repurchase a foreclosed homestead within one year of the auction for the sale price plus 25 percent.
The second amendment would require an association board member to visit a homeowner against whom the board is considering action. The board member would have to clearly explain the ramifications of not paying association fees, Lindsay said.
In a related development, Bettencourt said he plans to investigate the unpaid taxes on many of the 200 properties owned by Hilal of First Capital Interests, which purchased Blevins' house. Hilal, who has not returned phone calls, owes $50,000 in back taxes to Harris County and about $90,000 to the Houston Independent School District.
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