From fat-cat Wall Street financiers to oil-polluting energy companies like BP, nobody induces public rage quite like the unprincipled speculator who makes huge profits by brazenly running roughshod over the average citizen. Such purveyors of greed and their wanton disregard for others are easily spotted but not so easily deterred — they usually come armed with lawyers.
Four years ago, two Baltimore Sun reporters identified this sort of behavior in a previously overlooked provision of ground rent, the arcane and loosely regulated system wherein homeowners lease the land on which their houses are built. To collect overdue rental payments of as little as $24, some ground rent holders were seizing properties, selling them off and receiving the full proceeds, sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars.
One might assume the ground rent owners in question were shamed by these actions once they came to light. Or perhaps they consider themselves fortunate that this sort of usurious behavior didn't land them behind bars for a long time. In a different era, it would surely have at least gotten them tarred, feathered and run out of town.
Three years ago, the General Assembly passed reforms that allow ground rent owners to collect the rent that is due to them — and even reasonable penalties where appropriate. It gives them the right to seek liens and seek foreclosure, if necessary. But if homes are sold for overdue rent, the law calls for them to be reimbursed only for back rent and expenses they are rightfully due, not for the obscene profits some collected in the past.
Last week, an Anne Arundel County judge ruled for purposes of a lawsuit that the interests of ground rent owners can be represented collectively. Now certified as a class, the plaintiffs can press their case that the three-year-old reforms caused their leases to be substantially devalued and unconstitutionally impinged on their contractual and private property rights.
The lease owners are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation from taxpayers. The sheer audacity of the claim is a wonder to behold.
A ground rent class action case is akin to loan sharks suing when 500 percent interest rate loans are outlawed. It is Snidely Whiplash going to court to seek compensation from Dudley Do-Right for wrongful interference with his livelihood. It is BP suing oil-coated Gulf of Mexico waterfowl for illegal taking of their petroleum. It is Charles Ponzi seeking to be made whole for the government's taking of pyramid investment schemes.
Did the General Assembly's actions diminish the value of ground rents as an investment? Owners still have the ability to collect their rents. All they've been denied is the windfall that should never have been theirs to begin with.
If successful, the lawsuit might open the door for all kinds of outrageous claims. Banks might sue the state because recent anti-foreclosure reforms require mediation and other measures when mortgage payments are delinquent, instead of sending properties straight to the auction block.
Government takes actions all the time that affect property values — roads or water lines are built or not, zoning changes are made, building codes upgraded, schools built or closed. In none of those instances is there an obligation to compensate land owners for any adjustment in their theoretical profits.
Officials in the Maryland attorney general's office are confident that the state will ultimately prevail in the case. The certification of a class means only that a judge was persuaded that the ground rent owners have like interests. It is no endorsement of the validity of their claim.
The bottom line is that no society would countenance the destructive behavior of a relative few people buying ground rents for the ultimate purpose of kicking the unknowing out of house and home for the sake of extraordinary profits. It was an extreme remedy to a debt collection problem that was rightly wiped off the books. And it is simply not reasonable for any investors to be compensated for anything but the rental payments they are due and appropriate penalties if those payments are delayed.