How a Massachusetts Town Seized a Farmer’s $370k Property to Cover a $60k Tax Debt—and Kept the Change

Alan DiPietro is an alpaca farmer in the town of Bolton, Massachusetts (pop: 5,376). He lives in an RV on the 34-acre property where he keeps his alpacas, and he sells their fleece to make a living.

DiPietro wasn’t always a farmer. He previously worked as a chief engineer for iRobot, a company that makes autonomous home cleaning devices such as the Roomba vacuum cleaner. He became disenchanted with the bureaucracy and red tape of the corporate world, however, so in 2008 he decided to leave that world behind and begin his alpaca-farming venture.

The years since then have not been the easiest for DiPietro. In 2014 he suffered a financially-devastating divorce that ultimately led to bankruptcy. After the bankruptcy, he still had some money in a 401(k), and he used it to buy the 34-acre property he now lives and farms on. The home he was living in was foreclosed, however, and he was evicted in 2016. It was then that he moved to the motorhome on the farm.

In the ensuing years, DiPietro found himself in a protracted legal dispute over how he could use his property. He had mowed some fields and had built some wooden fencing and small sheds, but he was later told these actions violated certain state and local environmental regulations.

As a result of various enforcement actions and lawsuits, DiPietro struggled to use his property in a profitable manner, and his financial situation became dire. He became delinquent on his property taxes in 2016, and 14 percent annual interest began accruing on his unpaid taxes.

As the years went by, the legal battle intensified and DiPietro’s situation only worsened. By 2021, he owed the town roughly $60,000 in unpaid taxes and other costs. The property value at the time was roughly $370,000, and DiPietro owned it outright.

A couple of simple solutions to his debt problem likely jump to mind. Couldn’t he just make money with the property some other way or sell part of it to pay his debt? Indeed, he could—if the town would let him. But the town stopped him at every turn. When he applied for a forestry permit to sell trees on his land, for example, the town’s conservation officials asked for it to be denied on account of his alleged environmental violations, and the department in charge of permits complied with this request.

He was also prohibited by the town from getting a guard dog and from connecting to the internet and electrical grid, and the town would not legally recognize his address. These and other restrictions undermined several potential projects. The town also refused to give him the permits he needed to sell part of his land, and the reason for the refusal was the fact that he had outstanding property tax debt.

In short, DiPietro was caught in a catch-22. He had to pay the debt to get permission to make money, but he needed money first to pay the debt.

With the debt remaining unpaid, a land court foreclosed on the property in December 2021, transferring absolute title of the land to the town as payment for the debt. The town has since initiated eviction proceedings to remove DiPietro from the property.

And what about the $310,000 in equity above and beyond the debt, the equity that rightfully belongs to DiPietro? Oh yeah. The town kept that…which it’s allowed to do under state law.

Noting the injustice, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) joined DiPietro in filing a lawsuit against the town on January 10, 2023, demanding he get back that portion of the equity which is rightfully his.

The practice of keeping the equity of a foreclosed property above and beyond the debt owed is known as home equity theft, and it’s a lot more common than you might think. Across the country, local governments and private tax lien investors regularly foreclose on properties for unpaid tax debts and then keep the whole value of the property—even though that value is often far greater than the amount of debt that was owed.

In 38 states this is illegal. Foreclosing parties are required to sell the property and return excess profits to the original homeowner. In 12 states, however—one of which is Massachusetts—local governments or private investors can take the entire value of a tax-foreclosed home.

A recent PLF report highlights how extensive this practice has become.

“In our study of 31 Massachusetts localities, representing one-third of the state’s population, the government foreclosed and sold 254 homes for tax debt from January 2014 through June 2020,” PLF writes. “Massachusetts law allowed the taking of an estimated $60 million in equity above what these homeowners owed in property tax debt. Another 154 homes were foreclosed for tax debts from January 2014 through December 2020 by a private investment company that purchased tax liens (the right to collect a tax debt) from the state. Massachusetts law allowed the taking of an estimated $37 million in equity above what these homeowners owed in property tax debt.”

DiPietro unjustly lost roughly $310,000 of equity, representing about 84 percent of his property value. This is a fairly typical case, judging by the PLF report. “In the localities we studied, homeowners lost 87% of their home equity, on average—nearly $260,000 per home,” PLF notes.

The argument in favor of this practice is that the lost equity basically amounts to a fine or penalty for tax delinquency. You broke the law, after all, and breaking the law has consequences, the reasoning goes. If a state deems that one of those consequences should be that you lose the equity in your home, so be it.

The arguments against this practice take a few different forms. For one, detractors argue that taking more value than what is owed is simply unjust. They also argue that this violates the “just compensation” clause of the Fifth Amendment, which states that if a government takes private property for public use it must compensate the property owners appropriately.

To those who would put forward the argument that this taking amounts to a fine, detractors would respond by pointing to the Eighth Amendment, which states that excessive fines shall not be imposed. Surely this is an excessive fine if ever there was one.

A final argument against this practice is the simple point that it tends to impact the most vulnerable members of society more than others. PLF comments on this sad truth in its report on Massachusetts.

“Like similar tax foreclosure schemes in other states, the Massachusetts system likely hits vulnerable people the hardest,” PLF writes. “Most people don’t intentionally fail to pay their property taxes. As with the Calkinses [another case] and many others, life happens. Homeowners get sick, experience personal financial crises, or miscalculate a late payment. Research demonstrates that the elderly, sick, and poor are especially at risk of losing their most valuable asset—their home—for unpaid property taxes.”

The nineteenth century French economist Frédéric Bastiat coined a term that aptly describes this practice: legal plunder. The law, says Bastiat, is supposed to prohibit theft, but all too often it is weaponized by governments and special interest groups to enable theft. Rather than being outlawed, plunder is legalized and legitimized.

How do we know when legal plunder is occurring? Bastiat gives us a handy diagnostic tool in his 1850 book The Law.

“But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”

In a world of secure property rights, taking the entire value of a property for a much smaller debt would surely be a crime. In fact, some (including this author) would argue that property taxes as such constitute legal plunder, since they involve forcefully taking money from peaceful property owners.

Whether you agree with that or not, it should be clear that taking equity above and beyond what is owed is theft. Not only is this a grave injustice, it also harms vulnerable people and gives governments a powerful incentive to back these people into a corner, as the Bolton government did with DiPietro.

It’s long past time to end this predatory practice.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.

Patrick Carroll
Patrick Carroll

Patrick Carroll has a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo and is an Editorial Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.

This article was originally published on Read the original article.


What are Natural Rights?

We’ve all heard of Rights: Equal Rights, Human Rights, and various types of political or social “rights” du jour. Amazingly, there are many people who have never heard the term “natural rights” before and don’t know what that means, or don’t have an accurate and clear understanding of what rights are because the term is so often misused. So what are natural rights?

Philosopher John Locke wrote extensively and passionately about natural rights, which include the right to life, liberty, and property. Locke asserted that these rights are inherent in our nature as humans. This means they cannot be given nor taken away by any governments, politicians, nor documents such as the Constitution of the United States or the Bill of Rights—we simply have them.

what are natural rights
“All mankind...being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” —John Locke

Other natural rights that stem from Locke’s trifecta include the right to self-defense, the right of free movement, the right of privacy, the rights to free and independent thought and speech…the list can go on and on. Essentially, the key to remember here is that a natural right is something that you have the power of choice and action over that does not use force or coercion on others. As Ayn Rand wrote in her book The Virtue of Selfishness: “Remember that rights are moral principles which define and protect a man’s freedom of action, but impose no obligations on other men.”

Right To Life

“All mankind…being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” —John Locke

By your own efforts, you have the right to work to obtain food, housing, and healthcare. Something that often gets muddled in discussions about this natural right is that some people think these things are owed to them by society. But something is not a true “right” if you use force or coercion to take the things you want and need from others, because that would be encroaching upon their natural rights.

You do not have the natural right to slave labor, which is what you are advocating for if you are demanding food, housing, healthcare, and other life-sustaining goods and services to be given to you for free. Ayn Rand put it this way: “No right can require the material implementation of that right by another man.”

Voluntary exchange and mutual cooperation ensure that everyone’s natural rights are respected, and the more the state can be kept out of transactions between consenting individuals the more freedom, prosperity, and higher quality of life everyone can enjoy.


“I have no reason to suppose that he who would take away my liberty, would not when he had me in his power, take away everything else.” —John Locke

This is a word that some people often misuse in a similar way to the word “rights.” They talk about freedom from poverty, freedom from hunger, freedom from debt, etc. Others think of freedom as the license to do anything, without consequences. Both of these approaches are mistaken.

Poverty and hunger are the natural state of humans, and “freedom” from them makes as much sense as talking about freedom from youth or old age. Debt is something that is voluntarily undertaken, and to be “freed” from a debt voluntarily incurred is as silly as saying that you’re “free” from a restrictive piece of clothing you put on—true in a literal sense but not a philosophical one.

The “freedom” from the consequences of your actions is not freedom or liberty at all, because with that liberty you would be able to kill, steal, and enslave others with impunity—not liberty at all, but tyranny. Liberty can only be liberty if everyone possesses it, and so the only possible meaningful definition of liberty is that it is liberty from the interference of others—including the state.

Freedom from the state is important for the preservation of liberty and the other natural rights of individuals. This is what some of the Founding Fathers tried to guarantee with the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, but as Lysander Spooner wrote: “The Constitution has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it.” Sadly, the only person who truly has the power to defend your personal liberty is yourself, and no government office can be relied upon to safeguard this treasure.

what are natural rights
The US Founders believed that every person had the same rights to life and liberty, and to pursue happiness--and these rights did not come from government.

Property Rights

“Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.” —John Locke

Writer and economist Murray Rothbard has argued that all natural rights can be traced back to property rights alone: your body is considered your property, therefore you have the natural right to consume whatever you wish and move your body wherever you wish (so long as you respect the private property rights of others).

You have the natural right to preserve your body (your property) via self-defense. Owning property such as land gives you the means to provide life-sustaining food and shelter for yourself. The work of your body—physical and mental—can be traded with other people for property, including food and shelter.

Natural Rights and Voluntaryism

What does this have to do with voluntaryism? Voluntaryists believe in social and financial transactions based strictly on consent. This is completely in line with respecting the natural rights of others and ourselves.

The more you understand about natural rights, the clearer it becomes why we should assert them and defend them. A society free of force and coercion is a society firmly rooted in an understanding of natural rights, and a voluntaryist philosophy naturally and effortlessly follows.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

Government Steals $600 Million From Detroit Homeowners

In a spectacular display of callous unconcern, the City of Detroit has overtaxed its homeowners by over $600 million during the past 10 years.

According to investigative reporting by The Detroit News, Wayne county tax assessors simply stopped reassessing homes as market prices fell. Anna Bolden bought a lovely brick bungalow at a tax foreclosure auction for $4,800. When her tax bill came in, she found out why the house had been foreclosed: the city was charging taxes on a house worth $57,000. “I went down [to city and county offices] to ask questions, but it’s like everybody is giving you the runaround,” she said. “It makes you feel like they are cheating you…but what can you do?”

Anna Bolden (Photo: Robin Buckson, The Detroit News)

Although some homeowners managed to pay their inflated tax bills, at least 59,000 homes still have tax debts totaling $153 million dollars—including interest and fees on their fraudulent debts. There is a process to appeal the tax bills, but it’s a long and complicated process, and many don’t even know it exists. About 28,000 people have already lost their homes to the government over the excessive taxes. The ACLU of Michigan and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund sued to stop the tax foreclosure auction in 2016, but a judge ruled that the Michigan Tax Tribunal had oversight rather than the court—essentially claiming that this injustice was not his problem.

Despite low-interest repayment programs put into place by the government, many citizens feel that more should be done. However, city officials report that they are not allowed to simply eliminate the tax debt—even when the amount people were overcharged is more than the debt the currently owe. Nor are they allowed to retroactively apply poverty tax credits that people qualified for but were not aware of in previous years.

Anna Bolden's home in Detroit. (Photo: Robin Buckson, The Detroit News)

Of course, simply forgiving the tax debt that should never have been levied in the first place is out of the question for the government. City and county officials have argued that forgiving overtaxed residents who have not paid their taxes would be “unfair” to those who have paid. Naturally, the same officials have made no effort to address the unfairness faced by those who have lost their homes due to the overtaxing. However, the former Chair of the State Tax Commission Doug Roberts admitted that “Nobody paid as much attention as we should have. We should have [intervened] sooner.” Roberts also stated that the Detroit News’ findings are a “compelling case” and the government should “resolve the issues as equitably as possible.”

“That’s what government exists for,” Roberts said. Whether the government exists to belatedly correct a problem that it created and then ignored for years while tens of thousands of people suffered, you can judge for yourself.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter