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November 15, 2018 Pro Bono Matters

An Interview with 2017-2019 Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellow Catherine Martin

Throughout the country, cities have taken steps to revitalize urban neighborhoods to attract young, upwardly mobile residents who prefer to live in dense urban areas. As these neighborhoods increase in attractiveness, property tax values also increase. Long-time residents are often unable to keep up with the increased property tax burden. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is no exception. The lack of affordable housing and rise in property taxes have put many families at risk of experiencing homelessness through foreclosure. This is especially threatening for low-income taxpayers who live on a fixed income, such as Social Security, and may not be able to cover the property tax billed to them annually. Even when additional aid is factored in, such as Supplemental Security Income, roughly one-in-four Philadelphians still lives below the city’s median income. Some cities have amended local tax laws to allow for reduced property taxes for long-time home owners to avoid displacing residents.

Catherine Martin, the 2017-2019 Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellow, works at the Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) to help prevent homelessness among low-income families. In addition to providing court representation for homeowners facing foreclosure, she advocates for changes in the local tax laws and improved tax assistance programs. Catherine’s service at CLS has helped many Philadelphians stay in their homes and has created systemic change to avoid these problems in the future.

ABA Tax Times (ATT) recently contacted Catherine (CM) to discuss the important work she is doing through her Fellowship.

ATT: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and prior work experience, both in and out of tax?

CM: My life has been an adventure. I grew up in New Orleans and have lived in eleven cities in seven states. In my twenties, I was a Naval Officer’s wife, which made it difficult to hold a job outside the home, especially after 9/11 took my spouse away from home for long stretches of time. I had a dream of being an attorney and working to improve access to justice. As my thirties dawned, I found myself a single parent to three little kids. I decided the time was right and went to law school. I know what it means to struggle financially, and I think that helps me relate to my clients. I was immediately drawn to tax law and consumer law and sought volunteer experiences in law school to help me learn more about practice in those areas. I am thankful for my fabulous federal tax professor, Ruth Mason, who made taxation so interesting that I did not mind our class meeting at 8:30 on Friday mornings. She explained well how tax systems are and are not fair and how they can incentivize certain behaviors. This allowed me to think about tax systems in an entirely new way, which is vital to the work I do now in trying to improve the system in Philadelphia.

ATT: What inspired you to apply for the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship?

CM: I was honored to begin my legal career at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS) in 2015 immediately after law school. As a recipient of the University of Virginia’s Powell Fellowship in Legal Services, my work on property taxes was funded for two years at CLS. As that funding was ending, my advocacy was expanding and I was at a point at which I had a real chance of effecting sustainable and systemic change. I had spent two years building relationships with other advocates, city officials, and the court, but I had not yet been able to change the system in a meaningful way. I applied for the Christine A. Brunswick Public Service Fellowship so that I could build upon the groundwork created during my first fellowship and have a chance to create something that would last after I left. The two-year length of many fellowships seems like a lot of time to commit to a project, yet systemic advocacy often takes longer. Although there are still things I hope to improve, this Fellowship’s additional funding allowed me to work with the city to create the Tax Foreclosure Prevention Program.  That is a first-of-its-kind program that offers the sort of sustainable change that improves the whole community.

ATT: Could you tell us about Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and how you came to choose that organization?

CM: Community Legal Services of Philadelphia has been providing free legal services to low-income Philadelphians for more than 50 years. It is nationally recognized as a model legal services program. CLS has eight substantive practice areas, which makes it possible to provide comprehensive legal aid to low-income seniors and families who may have myriad legal issues with which they need help. During law school, I interned and volunteered extensively with Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, Virginia (another fantastic legal services program!), where I took on a number of consumer law cases. For my second summer, I hoped to get more experience in consumer law while making new connections at another organization. (That’s good career advice for any law students who may read this.) I landed a summer internship in CLS’s Homeownership & Consumer Rights Unit. Instead of consumer law, I ended up working on tax law for low-income Philadelphians at risk of losing their homes to tax foreclosure. I found real joy in untangling the Pennsylvania Municipal Claims and Tax Liens Act of 1923 and building upon my grounding in tax law and how it incentivizes behavior. CLS selected me to sponsor for a fellowship, and I continue to be thrilled to work and practice tax law at such an excellent organization.

ATT: Please tell me about the work you do. What sort of projects are you working on?

CM: I prevent homelessness, preserve intergenerational wealth, and stabilize communities. The best and most affordable home for low-income families and seniors is the home in which they currently live. Over the past decade, Philadelphia increased its property tax foreclosure filings by 1200%, putting thousands of low-income families at risk of homelessness. I provide direct representation to low-income homeowners in court and defend against these foreclosures. I advocate with the courts and city officials to improve tax assistance programs and procedures for all Philadelphians. When I joined CLS in 2015, homeowners were not entitled to a hearing to verify the facts of the case before the court issued a decree authorizing their home’s sale by the Sheriff. Now all delinquent taxpayers get a hearing. Additionally, this year I created and led two CLE programs to increase the number of private and legal aid attorneys who are knowledgeable on tax foreclosures, so that they feel prepared to take tax foreclosure cases pro bono. I also partnered with another legal services organization to create The Philadelphia Property Tax Handbook, which explains Philadelphia’s various tax assistance programs and how to apply for them. At CLS, we believe no one should become homeless due to a true inability to pay their property taxes. As neighborhoods gentrify, longtime homeowners should be able to enjoy the renewed community and economic development. My work serves to help low-income families and seniors keep their taxes affordable and remain in their homes.

ATT: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

CM: My biggest challenge has been trying to undo the Sheriff’s sale of a specific client’s home. The client (we’ll call him ‘Bill’ for ease of discussion) came to my office shortly after his home was sold to collect about $2,500 in unpaid property taxes. Having been the shooting victim in a violent robbery twenty years ago, Bill suffers from physical and mental ailments, so his only income is Social Security. He faithfully pays his monthly bills, but unfortunately, the tax bills that come once a year are greater than his monthly income. Although Bill tried his best, he struggled to pay the taxes in full. His home, purchased at auction for about $80,000, is in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Once the home is remodeled, it will likely sell for three to four times as much. The developers hotly contested my motion to set aside the sale of Bill’s home for several legal and equitable reasons, and the judge denied my motion. I have appealed to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, one of two intermediate appellate courts in the state, which is set to hear oral arguments this month (November 2018). It would be tragic if Bill ultimately loses his home. Although it may be too late for Bill, I have worked to ensure that people in Bill’s situation in Philadelphia will not lose their homes in the future.

ATT: What has been the most rewarding part of your Fellowship?

CM: Knowing that I can give someone peace of mind, that they will not lose their home because of taxes they cannot afford, is truly the best part of my job. Seeing relief wash over someone’s face when I explain that their tax delinquency is resolvable is an experience that I struggle to put into words. It is beyond rewarding to know that I am making a difference with my life, one family at a time. Even better still is knowing that, because of my advocacy, countless other families will be helped.

ATT: Do you have any immediate plans for your work after the Fellowship ends? How has the Fellowship impacted your career goals? Do you expect to stay with your sponsor organization after the Fellowship has ended?

CM: I am fortunate in that CLS has already indicated I am able to remain after my Fellowship ends. For the foreseeable future, I plan to stay and continue the vitally important work in preventing homelessness. The Fellowship allowed me to build upon my first two years of practice and the relationships I had made and truly change the tax foreclosure process in Philadelphia in a sustainable way. I have learned an immeasurable amount from this experience, and I hope to do more in the future to effect sustainable change. I have found myself more connected to the broader tax law community because of the Fellowship, which I thoroughly appreciate. Tax is such a varied and diverse practice area, and it is always wonderful to learn from other practitioners. Someday, I would love to get an LL.M. and explore tax law further, especially now that I am entering my fourth year of practice and have experiences and knowledge to draw from. At this time, however, I find the cost of most programs prohibitive. I am eternally grateful for the opportunities the Fellowship has given me, and I can only imagine what future awaits.

2 Social Security Administration, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in Pennsylvania (2018).

3 City of Philadelphia, Division of Housing and Community Development, Consolidated Plan 2017-2022.