Couple buy neighbor's home at tax sale so he can stay
Couple help neighbor stay in home, then get help to fix their house
From the front row of a public auditorium, Debbie Harrell fixed her eyes on a screen that showed the houses up for auction at the Marion County tax sale.
When the list that included the home behind hers flashed onto the screen, her heart began to pound and her stomach tied in knots. She knew this was the moment that could determine whether her neighbor would get to remain in that house.
Harrell called out the house's auction number, held up her bid card and hoped that no one else would offer more than her $6,000 limit. When the bidding closed a few seconds after she offered the $4,274 minimum, she jumped out of her seat, flailed her arms and exclaimed, "I got it! I got it!"
The room filled with applause.
Harrell's winning bid marked a huge step in her effort to save her neighbor, Mark Reeves, from losing his home. His white-sided Southeastside residence with a leaking roof went up for tax sale after his landlord stopped paying property taxes.
The house was one of about 7,200 properties offered as part of a tax sale that started Thursday and resumes Friday. So far, about 1,100 have sold.
Harrell and her husband, Clint, opted to help Reeves despite their own financial struggles. Now, they must wait a year to give the landlord a chance to reclaim the property before it becomes theirs.
But already, their kindness is being reciprocated.
Friday, a woman who read about their charity in The Indianapolis Star and wanted to remain anonymous called with an offer to send the couple $1,000 for their bid to save the home. A nonprofit group, Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, offered to fix the floor in the Harrells' home, which is collapsing in places.
"Sometimes your faith in people gets a little low," Harrell said. "But something like this really raises your spirits. I can't believe there are so many nice people out there."
The Harrells' effort also helped restore Reeves' faith. Harrell said he called her in tears after hearing she had won the bid.
"My friends that I've known for over 30 years -- they knew my problem and they never even offered to help me," Reeves said. "It's hard for me to (understand) that there are people out there like the Harrells. They're not in much better shape than I am."
Harrell, 57, took the money out of her husband's 401(k) retirement account to finance the bid. She is on disability, and he lost his job at a steel company in November.
If they secure the property, the Harrells said, they intend to help Reeves set up an account so he can pay property taxes. They don't plan to charge him rent.
Reeves, who can barely read or write, sold the home in 1994 without full understanding of the transaction and has been paying $125 a month to James Chalfant, who purchased the home and recently has stopped paying property taxes.
Chalfant said he intends to work with Reeves' lawyer to help him get the house back. However, Chalfant would not explain how he could do that.
But he thinks government programs could assist Reeves in making the payment.
Typically, about 70 percent of tax-sale properties are reclaimed within a year, said Cindy Land, administrative deputy with the Marion County treasurer's office. After the last sale, in October 2008, about 65 percent of the properties were reclaimed.
Harrell knows Chalfant could take back the house, but that doesn't worry her. For now, she has accomplished her goal: providing some security that her neighbor has a place to live.
"I'm just glad that Mark's not going to have to live in his van," she said. "The house is a pretty run-down shack, but it's home to him."
A sad story: Mark Reeves explains to neighbor Debbie Harrell how his home ended up on the tax sale list. Harrell and her husband, Clint, are trying to buy their neighbor's house to save him from becoming homeless. - Danese Kenon / The Star
First step: Debbie Harrell plunks down $1,000 to get her paddle for the property tax auction so that she'll have a shot at bidding on the house behind hers. - Danese Kenon / The Star
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