It was bad enough that Natalia Estaban returned to her century-old home in Marshalltown, Iowa, to find it stripped of all her family photos. Someone had also assumed legal title to her home of more than 20 years and put it up for sale.
The 72-year-old immigrant from Mexico was among victims of a little-known “quiet title” law that lets predators seize control of peoples’ homes with little notice, Iowa Public Radio reported.
The loophole on the books in Iowa and other states across the Midwest has been used to exploit Estaban and other immigrants who don’t speak fluent English. Marshalltown, between Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, has a population of about 28,000, 31 percent of whom are Latino.
“It was very devastating for her,” said her daughter, Maria Kendall, who had spotted the listing for her mother’s home on Zillow while her mother was visiting a sister in California.
Quiet title actions are generally used to settle questions over who owns a piece of property, according to the radio network. People may file quiet title actions to resolve boundary disputes, or to resolve who owns property after someone dies.
But the Iowa law is vaguely written, experts say, and has numerous shortcomings. Someone can argue that the property belongs to them and then also fail to notify an unwitting homeowner of a dispute involving ownership of the property.
A woman named Catherine Gooding had filed a quiet title petition for Esteban’s two-story, white clapboard house, claiming it had been abandoned. In court documents, Gooding said she had a tax sale certificate and that she had “been in possession of the property since 2018.”
Gooding told the court she could not find Esteban to notify her of the action. So as the law requires, she published a notice three times in a local newspaper, in small print.
Since Estaban wasn’t in Iowa at the time, doesn’t speak English and probably doesn’t read the classifieds, she didn’t know she had to attend a court hearing, which meant Gooding won the case by default – and therefore, could reclaim ownership of the house.
But the Estebans said Gooding had only applied for a tax sale certificate, and hadn’t been granted one. The city didn’t have any abandonment claims documented. The family went to court and were able to retain ownership of the house, but only because Kendall happened to see the listing.
“We would never have found out the house was sold,” Kendall said. “My mother would have come back to Iowa in the summer and she would have [found] out she doesn’t have a house.”
Ultimately, Esteban sold her house for $50,000.
Gooding has acquired more than 40 properties in and around Marshalltown, about a third of them through quiet title petitions, according to the network. She acquired many of those properties after a 2018 tornado and a storm in August 2020. Her attorney said neither he nor Gooding wished to comment.
Between 2018 and 2021, 55 quiet title petitions were filed in Marshall County, around Marshalltown. Nearby Muscatine County had 28 in the same period.
With similar laws on the books in Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas, homeowners from marginalized communities in the Midwest may be at risk of being targeted, according to Mike White, a real estate attorney based in Kansas City.
“I’d say the average person knows absolutely nothing about quieting titles or even what the title is,” he told the radio network. “So yeah, they’re at a tremendous disadvantage.”
[IPR] – Dana Bartholomew