In 1949, Mittie Stewart’s father-in-law bought two lots in a northeast Houston subdivision known as Liberty Manor. “At first he was going to live here,” Stewart explained to KTRK. “But he got sick and went back to his home in Louisiana. After that he passed away.”
Stewart’s father-in-law bought the land as “contract for deed,” meaning Steward paid a little every month to its owners, D & H Land Company, and would get the deed when he paid it off. After he passed, Stewart and her husband continued to care for the lot and paid their taxes to Harris County - she’s even paid fines for uncut grass twice.
"We've paid taxes on this land every year," she said. "This year I paid $324 and 60-some cents."
Stewart is now 84, but she only recently discovered she doesn’t own the land, which is worth $13,000, despite paying taxes on it for more than 60 years. She asked the tax assessor to ask for a refund, and an official asked if she had been volunteering to pay taxes on land she didn’t own.
“I said, 'No. Why would I volunteer?,” Stewart recalled.
Stewart then tried to sell the land but the company that owned it, D & H Land Company, had gone out of business in 1955. However, its last vice president, Carl S. Smith, was the county’s tax assessor for 51 years, meaning he was billing the Stewarts up until he died in 1998.
The current tax assessor and officials with the Harris County Appraisal District said they don’t know what happened.
Cassie McGarvey with the Houston-based Sanders Willyard law firm has stepped in to help Stewart. "The frustrating thing about all of this is that this property has been in the family for over 60 years and they just got taken advantage of because this company, the way I look at it, just forgot about it or they just sort of moved on," McGarvey said. "She should have title to it. The family has had it forever."
McGarvey said cases like this are not uncommon. "Across the board this is the problem with contracts for deed,” she explained. The legislature has offered more protection to modern consumers, but it doesn’t extend to those who had deeds from the past.
McGarvey hopes she can help Stewart win in the next six to nine months, but until then Stewart will keep paying her taxes.“I am not ready to go until I get this straightened out,” she said.
When the story hit Facebook, several people sided with Stewart. “They need to just give her the deed, she clearly paid 13,000 at least in erroneously collected taxes! they have to cop to the taxes because they sent her the tax collection notice and also notices of unkempt grass - they clearly acknowledge her ownership!,” Lorri Nicholes wrote.