By Brandon Martin
The Martinsville Land Bank Authority, which includes members of Martinsville City Council, made its first property transfer on September 24, 2019, when properties located at 537 and 539 Dillard Street were purchased by Ebony Millner for $7,500.
Less than a year later, “I’m trapped,” Millner said. “I can’t sell it because of the lien” that she did not know about when she purchased the property. “I can’t live in it. I can’t afford to fix it so I can live in it. I can’t afford legal help to fight it. My current lease is about to be up and I’m still stuck.”
The initial purchase was under less than ideal circumstances, Millner said, and recalled that at the time, she was desperate to find a “move-in ready” home because she “had nowhere else to go” due to personal matters.
She said that after talking to some city employees, she initially turned down the offer on the Dillard Street properties and opted to sign a lease at another location. However, after she was again contacted about the Dillard Street properties, Millner said she decided to further explore that option.
A city building official who assisted her with permits also encouraged her to draft a proposal to be read at the next Martinsville City Council meeting, Millner said.
She added that she didn’t hear anything about her proposal until she read about it in the newspaper the day after the meeting. Given the publicity surrounding the transaction, Millner said she felt obligated to continue with the process.
“I had never bought a home before, and the city assured me it was salvageable,” she said of the home. “They said that all of the properties that were part of the revitalization project had been inspected, and this was one that had been flagged to be saved instead of demolished.”
Millner said that closing on the property took about five minutes.
“It was like a mad dash to get me out the door,” she alleged. “I should have suspected something was amiss.”
After obtaining the deed, Millner said a member of the fire department and a city building inspector came to view the property. According to Millner, they could not enter the house at the time due to the build-up of debris and clothing left by the previous occupant (s).
“There was no thorough investigation of the house,” she said, adding that she hired numerous people to clean out all of the debris and clothing. Once someone was able to actually assess the property, she said she obtained a $60,000 quote to make the needed repairs.
Within two weeks, Millner said she tried to contact the city to ask more about the property. She said she wrote to each council member, and met with Assistant City Manager and City Attorney Eric Monday.
“Basically, he said I should have looked into it more first and that I had buyer’s remorse,” Millner said. “He said they weren’t going to do anything.”
Monday said that he did tell her that she was experiencing buyer’s remorse, and that the city isn’t required to do an environmental assessment, especially considering the cost.
Millner said that not only was she unable to get help from the city, she learned a lien from a previous owner was on the property.
“They never told me about the previous lien, and I can’t do anything until that lien is taken care of,” she said.
“It’s incumbent on the purchaser to do a title search on a property,” Monday said. “We are frequently told to run the government like a business, and the way that we conducted that real estate transaction is the way that every commercial real estate land sale is done. If you are the buyer, there are certain things that you need to do.”
Millner said that she is unable to sell or live in the property due to its condition. She said she has approached local banks for financing, but was denied because she didn’t actually live on the property.
“I essentially paid the city to hold the property,” Millner said.
As part of the transfer, it was required that the houses be renovated to the Virginia Uniform Building Code within a year. After that, the buyer is required to live on the property for two years.
“Right now it is still her property,” Monday said. “If she does not complete the renovations during the time period then it does revert to us. We are not going to reverse the transaction just because she does not want to go through with it and wants her money back. Nor would we take it back before that time period is up. It was a contract. She signed a contract and we will wait for the life of the contract.”