UVA Law's New Powell Fellow to Help Philadelphia Homeowners Avoid Tax Foreclosure

Cat Martin

Third-year law student Cat Martin stands with her 4-year-old daughter, Evie. Martin said the Powell Fellowship will fulfill her dream of helping others.

December 10, 2014

As the 14th Powell Fellow in Legal Services, University of Virginia School of Law student Cat Martin '15 will help Philadelphia homeowners avoid foreclosure due to back taxes.

Next year Martin will start her fellowship at the Homeownership and Consumer Law Unit of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, where she worked over the summer under a Public Interest Law Association grant.

The Law School's Powell Fellowship awards $40,000 and benefits to enhance the delivery of legal services to the poor under the sponsorship of a host public interest organization. The award is made for one year with the expectation that it will be renewed for a second year. Powell Fellows are also eligible for the school's Loan Forgiveness Program.

Martin, whose focus is consumer law, said Philadelphia's new housing crisis was precipitated by the city's lax tax collection over the years and the state government's need to refill its coffers.

"In Philadelphia, property tax collection wasn't enforced well for a very long time, and then the state basically told Philadelphia, 'Go collect some money,'" she said.

Philadelphia's $100-150 million in uncollected taxes has ballooned to about a half a billion dollars owed, with fees and interest, resulting in about a thousand foreclosures a month, Martin said. This year alone, hundreds of homeowners requested assistance from Community Legal Services.

"It's the No. 1 reason people come into the office anymore," Martin said. "More so than welfare or Social Security benefits or anything like that."

The city's tax foreclosure issue is separate from the private mortgage foreclosure crisis that gripped much of the nation over the past decade. But Philadelphia shares a new dilemma with other economically distressed parts of the country such as Detroit and Washington, D.C.: resolve debt while helping clients stay in their homes.

The average delinquent Philadelphia homeowner is about six years and $4,000 in arrears, Martin said. Poor residents are the least likely to recover.

"From a policy standpoint, [aggressive tax collection] is a bad policy because you are displacing people who are poor, who don't have anywhere else to go and will end up needing other social services," she said. "The best policy is to get the city paid some of its taxes and to allow people to keep their homes."

For its part, Philadelphia has developed payment plans for homeowners who can prove ownership and who fall below 70 percent of the median income for the area. But for residents with houses that have been handed down from previous generations, proving clear title or other ownership interest is difficult. Martin will conduct legal research on titles and deeds, spread the word about payment plans and make sure tax collectors and the courts give homeowners their due process.

Martin, a New Orleans native who graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, follows in the footsteps of recent Powell Fellows Mario Salas '14 and Kim Rolla '13, both of whom worked for Community Legal Services while law students. They are now employed full-time at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, where Martin worked as a first-year student.

Martin also has been an active member of the Public Interest Law Association, which recently instigated a pilot program that pairs students with alumni mentors. She currently serves on the managing board for the Virginia Journal of International Law and is an active member of Feminist Legal Forum. Martin manages all of her student activities while also being a single parent.

"She's been on this journey with me," Martin said of her daughter, Evie, who is turning 4 today. Martin has brought Evie to student softball games, section events and meetings with professors.

"I did everything everyone else does, and more," Martin said of being a single parent. "UVA has been welcoming of that — it's been a place where that's possible."

It wasn't always easy, Martin added.

"I did my journal tryout with her puking in my lap," she laughed.

Powell Fellows are chosen through a rigorous application and interview process.

Annie Kim, assistant dean for public service and director of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, said Martin's proposal stood out because of its strong consumer law component.

"No one else is really doing this kind of work," Kim said. "I think Cat has an opportunity to make sweeping change and have a huge impact in the city."

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