A house fire arouses the curiosity of a journalist
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It was a Friday, nine days before Christmas. Stephen Merelman, Metro bureau editor of the New York Times, messaged me about an intriguing tip he had heard about a fire in Maplewood, NJ, a suburban town about 20 miles of Manhattan.
A landlord there, Eve Morawski, had lost the deed to her 60-year-old home after falling behind on taxes. Firefighters responding to the December 7 blaze at the home discovered her inside; she had apparently set the fire herself after being kicked out the day before.
Ms Morawski had spoken about the loss of her home on social media. “Don’t let these bullies get away with this,” she wrote to friends on Facebook weeks before the fire.
I had a strong hunch that there was more to the story, so I started making calls and asking questions. The results, published in a Metro article this week, turned out to be more complicated than I had imagined.
With the help of New York Times researcher Kirsten Noyes, I spent part of that mid-December weekend reflecting on a decade of federal and state lawsuits Ms. Morawski had filed, or that had been filed against her, about the house and other issues. She often represented herself in court, and much of her legal writing read like journal entries. I found myself with a quirky feeling of actually knowing someone I had never met.
I learned from a police report that she had stabbed herself in the chest the morning of the fire. I also learned that a friend of hers, worried about her mental health, had called the police in the days before the fire; she feared Mrs. Morawski was suicidal, a detail that got me thinking about continuing the story. My editor, Felice Belman, gave me the nudge I needed to stick with it a little longer.
In December, I traveled to Maplewood to learn more about Ms. Morawski and had one of the most unusual experiences of my journalism career: almost every neighbor answered the door and almost everyone wanted to talk. – a lot – of the woman they had come to know and love and the convoluted race towards the fire. Ms. Morawski was an integral part of the community, I learned, and the housing laws surrounding the loss of her home raised questions with far-reaching implications.
New Jersey cities are required to sell unpaid tax and sewer bills every year, and it’s become big business for investors, who can charge 18% interest on so-called tax certificates. After two years, the buyers – lien holders – are allowed to seize the property and keep the profits.
Ms Morawski lost her four-bedroom home, worth around $700,000 before the fire, on an original debt of $12,809, or three-quarters of her unpaid 2015 taxes. , the company that now owns the house, Effect Lake LLC, paid the Township of Maplewood a $92,800 bonus, a standard practice. The company also continued to pay Ms. Morawski’s taxes and sewer fees once they were 10 days overdue, as permitted by state law.
By the time Effect Lake held the deed in 2020, he had invested around $175,000 to own a home worth at least three times that. Any excess profits from Effect Lake will not be returned to Ms. Morawski. This is legal in just 12 states, according to the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit, which has argued that the practice violates the Constitution. And it takes advantage of the most vulnerable in society, said Christina Martin, an attorney for the foundation.
After the fire, Ms Morawski was charged with arson and burglary and was incarcerated in Newark. I put $11 into her prison phone account so she could call me, but we never made contact. I was in court on January 13 when a judge ruled that she could be released from prison, pending the outcome of the charges. A few days later, my cell phone rang. I was happy to finally hear his voice and relieved to learn that his account was largely consistent with the documents I had reviewed and the recollections of his friends.
We spoke for the first time for about 90 minutes. One of the questions I asked was why she didn’t sell the house before confiscating it completely. She mostly avoided the question, noting the numerous lawsuits that had drained her time and resources, her inability to find full-time work, and the hope that she would eventually prevail. We continued to exchange emails over the next two weeks.
On January 27, she emailed me a photo a neighbor had taken of a green dumpster full of furniture and knick-knacks that workers had taken out of her old house.
“My house and I are being gutted,” she wrote.