In the Garden State, it's perfectly legal to buy a homeowner's unpaid tax bill, charge a high interest rate, then take the home if the bill's not paid.
But what would you think if a school run by a house of worship was doing it? FOX 29 Investigates' Jeff Cole has more in this report.
Donna Maxwell, a single mom in Burlington County, is raising the youngest four of her eight children in a Springfield Township mobile home.
She lost her job as a cashier and faces medical problems in her family.
Maxwell is proud she's been able to stay in her hometown of almost 50 years, until now.
"This is a trailer on a piece of property, an acre and a quarter," she said. "The kids have been made fun of for it so much, all eight kids, because we live in a trailer. But it's so funny, all their friends want to come here because this is where the love is. This is a home. It's not much, but it's ours."
But that's the problem. The rundown trailer and the surrounding land don't belong to Maxwell any longer. In fact, she has just a few months before she must get out. She's facing a spring eviction.
So, who's telling her to leave? Who owns the property? You may not believe it.
The Life Center Academy, a religious school, foreclosed on the property. It has been placed under the control of another entity with an address at the Fountain of Life Center, a church located on what it calls a "spiritual oasis" in Burlington.
How did this all come about? When tax bills aren't paid, New Jersey law lets communities sell liens at auction. Anyone can bid on them, pay off the taxes, then demand repayment from the property owners, plus interest. Fail to pay, and they can seek to take the home.
That's what's happened to Maxwell and her family.
"So, your understanding is this church has paid these taxes because it wants this property?" Cole asked.
"Yes," Maxwell answered.
"And it's going to throw you the hell out of here?" Cole asked.
"Yes, and I've asked if we could rent. And the lady I called last week, she won't even return my phone call," Maxwell said.
It works this way: The group that buys the back taxes can file to take the home, or foreclose, after two years.
If the banks stay out of it, the property can fall into the lien-holders' lap for the little they paid.
There were 54,000 foreclosure filings in New Jersey courts last year, the most since 2010. More than 2,000 were filed on people who didn't pay their taxes.
Maxwell's liens were bought for only a couple thousand dollars beginning 14 years ago. But the school is allowed to charge 18 percent under the law.
She's now told she owes a stunning $55,000.
Maxwell said she said she fell behind when her dad, who helped her pay the tax bills, got ill. The land is actually in an ex-husband's name, but he's out of the picture.
She says she thought an earlier bankruptcy would protect her family.
"You think you're drowning?" Cole asked.
"Yeah, I feel like I am," he said. "Think about it, where are you going to go? When they come and throw you out, your stuff is left behind. I don't have money for storage. So, we'll take what we can take and that's it."
We wanted to know why a church is wrapped up in this. Meet, Executive Pastor David Boudwin.
"Let me tell you, we have heard from folks who are really concerned and upset about it," Cole said, as he handed the pastor a business card.
"Well, haven't heard from them," Boudwin said, before asking, "Who have you heard from?"
"OK, Donna Maxwell," Cole said.
"I don't know her," Boudwin said.
Surprised that a church is in the tax lien business? So was our financial expert.
"Yeah, I've been doing this a long time, working with non-profits and managing money for a long time. I've never once heard of a non-profit, let alone a religious non-profit, buying tax liens," said Dan Roccato, of Quaker Wealth Management. He's also a FOX 29 News contributor.
Roccato has also served as a mayor and councilman in New Jersey. He says buying tax liens is clearly an appropriate and legal tool.
But he does wonder why any church would go down this path.
"I suspect most congregants might be very uncomfortable with the concept of buying tax sales, ultimately foreclosing on homes, creating more homeless instead of less homeless," Roccato said.
And it has gotten messy. A few years back, a business controlled by the Fountain of Life Center, the church, drew the attention of antitrust investigators at the Justice Department.
That business was charged with conspiracy, pleaded guilty, paid a fine and got probation.
Now, a civil lawsuit that names the church may cost a quarter-million dollars.
We pressed Boudwin about Maxwell losing her home.
"Donna Maxwell is being foreclosed on," Cole said.
"OK," Boudwin said.
Cole began, "She's told she's got to leave by the spring."
Boudwin asked, "Did she pay her taxes?"
"Well, no, she hasn't," Cole said.
"Oh, well, she should pay her taxes. That's the law," Boudwin said.
"Well, do you think a church should foreclose on her and kick her out?" Cole asked.
Boudwin said "no" several times, but Cole followed-up, "Is that what you folks do?"
"If somebody doesn't pay their taxes, somebody's gonna, somebody's gonna buy her liens," Boudwin said. "That's a state law."
"Should it be a church?" Cole pressed, as Boudwin turned away. "Seriously, should it be a church that does that and tells her to go?"
"I don't know Donna Maxwell, but it's good to talk to you," Boudwin said.
Maxwell is not alone.
Jennifer Schlear adores the Palmyra Victorian where she's been raising three sons.
"I am terrified," said Schlear, who works as a visiting nurse in Philadelphia, said. "I don't want to lose my house. I don't know if I am coming or going."
She fears it's slipping away.
"I fell behind on my taxes. I've been current on everything else," she said. "And a church came in, and they bought the tax – the tax sale, I guess, at the township.
Schlear owes $30,000 in back taxes.
"They charged 18-percent interest, and then fees and penalties," she said. "And when I couldn't come up with the full amount, they're trying to foreclose on the house."
But Life Center tells her, with interest, the bill has now ballooned to nearly $57,000.
Cole asked about her home, "So, what do you think about when you think there's a chance that you could lose it?"
"I can't even think about it. It upsets me. It's my home, for me and my children," Schlear said.
Court documents show both houses are being handed over to F.S. Properties. Susan M. Esposito, Life Center Academy's Director of Development, signed the paperwork.
There's another document Esposito signed – a 2012 plea deal with the Justice Department.
It turns out the feds were investigating bid rigging at tax lien auctions across New Jersey.
The government claims this "conspiracy" had bidders divvying up properties before auctions so they could charge the maximum interest rate, 18 percent, and putting them first in line if owners failed to pay again. A dozen defendants have pleaded guilty.
Among those was Mercer S.M.E., Inc. Documents show the Fountain of Life Center is its parent company. Esposito is its president, and it got a $15,000 fine and probation at sentencing.
We knocked at Esposito's door and left a card, but got no response.
Down the street, we asked Boudwin about it.
"Didn't the church have some trouble in the past involving this?" Cole asked. "Didn't the federal government move against an entity of the church?"
Boudwin answered, "Well, I mean, everything that you're asking me is public record, you're certainly willing to go and look that all up, sure."
"So, it was a $15,000 fine from the feds?" Cole asked.
"No, I think you have your information wrong," Boudwin said.
But court records show, they've already paid.
And there's more. The church, and some of its leaders, were named in a class-action lawsuit. It claims Esposito and Boudwin represented the church at auctions and charges liens would be assigned to "shell corporations," like Mercer S.M.E., Inc.
A lawyer working the civil case says they've reached verbal agreements to settle with everyone, including the "Fountain of Life defendants," who agreed to pay out $250,000 and offer a big discount on past liens.
Again, Boudwin told us we had it wrong.
"You have your information wrong," Boudwin said.
"Well, what about, it was a $250,000 civil claim, as well?" Cole asked.
"I think you have your information wrong," Boudwin said.
We asked about the liens.
"But, Dave, do you guys buy tax liens and foreclose on people?" Cole asked.
"No, we don't buy tax liens anymore," the pastor responded.
"Do entities connected with the church do it?" Cole followed-up.
"Nope," Boudwin replied.
That may be true, but F.S. Properties, which took Schlear and Maxwell's homes, has taken dozens of properties since 2013.
Both moms claim they tried to pay what they could of the taxes, but couldn't clear them.
And they say the church wouldn't work with them.
Roccato, the wealth manager, heads the finance committee at his Catholic church, where buying tax liens is not allowed. His church requires an investment policy that's spelled out.
"I want to be comfortable that the church's resources, our money as a congregation, is being used in a way that I think supports our overall mission, which presumably is to serve the communities and to serve God," Roccato said.
A churchgoer we spoke with says the Fountain of Life has now dumped the tax lien business.
"They're foreclosing on people, kicking them out of their homes," Cole said.
"That's a part of it, yes," said church member Bob Beckett.
"But aren't people bothered by that?" Cole asked. "Aren't parishioners bothered by the idea that folks would be foreclosed on?" Cole asked.
"Yes, yes," Beckett said.
"And kicked out of their homes?" Cole asked.
Beckett replied, "Yeah, that's why the church didn't – got out of it."
Even if they're no longer buying tax liens, it's not helping the women we spoke to.
Schlear told us, "I didn't know a church – I thought churches were there to help you, not to prey on people's misfortune, and take your home."
While Maxwell claims the church was nice enough to give her food last year, but not so kind when she asked to rent just to stay in her former home.
"And they said to you?" Cole asked.
"No," Maxwell said.
"No?" Cole asked.
"I owed too much money," Maxwell said.
"Well, why? They're a church. Don't they want to help you?"
"I guess not," replied Maxwell.
"You don't think they want to help you?" Cole asked.
"No, not at all. Not at all," Maxwell said.
Pastor Boudwin said he's not involved with any of this. He told us to call Fountain of Life Center and set up an appointment. We tried, but never heard from him.
We questioned the church's state parent organization, the District Council of the Assemblies of God. Its superintendent, Rev. Carl Colletti, called tax liens leading to foreclosures "repulsive."
Colletti says changes have been made. There's new leadership including an interim lead pastor and chief financial officer.
And an audit is under way to determine if "funds were mishandled."
The Assemblies of God adds it encourages "compassion" for those in financial hardship, Cole reported.
As for the class-action lawsuit settlement, notifications with more details will be mailed out soon, an attorney handling the case tells FOX 29 Investigates. Those details will also be posted to a website, NJTaxLienSettlements.com.