MAPLEWOOD, N.J. — It was dark by the time Eve Morawski managed to break into her home of 60 years.
The locks had been changed by sheriff’s deputies enforcing an eviction order. Movers hired by investors who took possession of the house after she fell behind on taxes had been inside most of the day, packing up photos and knickknacks her family had spent a lifetime accumulating.
She was infuriated to find the house in disarray.
Sometime before dawn, a police report shows, she located a book of matches and a knife.
“Jersey Girl Justice will hopefully prevail in the end,” Ms. Morawski wrote to friends on Facebook just before fire trucks began roaring down the pretty block in Maplewood, N.J.
To neighbors, the Dec. 7 fire that burst from second-floor windows and licked at the eaves of Ms. Morawski’s former home was a spectacularly sad end to an epic real estate battle that had played out publicly on social media and in state and federal courts. To her only sister, it was a tragic, avoidable coda to a 20-year family feud.
“There’s a lingering sense of: Is there something more as a community we could have done to help?” said John Guterman, a friend of Ms. Morawski who lives down the street and shared her love of animals, smoked barbecue and the Mets.
Well known and well liked, Ms. Morawski was a fixture in Maplewood, a commuter town 20 miles from Manhattan. Classmates recalled her as the smart kid in advanced placement classes who went on to earn an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania.
Returning home as an adult, she volunteered at area animal shelters and on the board of a preserved 18th-century house dedicated to sharing Maplewood’s history.
A longtime member of the local Interfaith Holocaust Remembrance Committee, she accepted a prestigious award in May for her dedication to keeping the lessons of the Holocaust alive. It was a passion fueled largely by devotion to her Polish immigrant parents, Roman Catholics who she has said were imprisoned by the Nazi and Soviet regimes during World War II. They went on to build a life in suburban New Jersey — a triumph that, to her, was embodied in the four-bedroom house they purchased at 60 Maplewood Avenue.
Privately, she was consumed by a cascade of debt and drawn-out legal battles that had pushed her to the emotional and financial brink.
Two acrimonious divorces. A three-year probate fight with her sister over their parents’ estate. A federal discrimination complaint against a former employer. Dueling lawsuits from a romance that ended badly. And, finally, bankruptcy.
Unable to afford a lawyer, she often represented herself. By her own telling, she was always the victim.
A cancer diagnosis in 2021 complicated everything.
By the time she lost the house, Ms. Morawski, 60, had accumulated more than $100,000 in unpaid taxes and fees, a burden that was further exacerbated by a state law heavily weighted toward real estate speculators. New Jersey is one of just a dozen states that permit investors to make huge profits on the debt of struggling homeowners, ultimately allowing them to foreclose on the property and keep all the profit.
“This has been an egregious travesty of justice,” she wrote in a letter to local officials shortly before the fire. “I need immediate help to stop the steal of my home.”
‘The house and legacy I need to save!’
Ms. Morawski’s childhood home on Maplewood Avenue sits three blocks from a commuter rail station and the quaint storefronts at the center of town, a pedestrian-friendly hub that residents call “the village.” Always considered a desirable community, Maplewood drew a flood of new buyers during the pandemic, and recent sales of renovated houses on the street have ranged from $755,000 to $1.6 million.
Long before the fire, the house was notable for its peeling buckskin-beige paint and tattered roof, outward signs of the difficulty Ms. Morawski had keeping up with repairs and household bills. But she was determined to hold on.
“The house and legacy I need to save!” she wrote on a GoFundMe page a friend created in 2019.
A friend set up a GoFundMe page featuring photos of Eve Morawski’s parents, including a sketch of her father drawn by Jan Rocki, a fellow soldier.Credit…via GoFundMe
Details of Ms. Morawski’s fight to save the house are based on more than two dozen interviews with neighbors, friends, community leaders and lawyers, as well as tax documents, federal, state and county court records and her own social media posts.
After divorcing her first husband, who was in the Navy and stationed in Hawaii, she returned to Maplewood in 2000 to care for her ailing parents. She worked briefly for a management consulting firm and sometimes gave historical walking tours, but had trouble finding full-time work. An assortment of part-time jobs as a swim instructor ended with the onset of the pandemic.
But she had struggled to make ends meet since at least 2010. Desperate for money, she sold her burial plot, patched her leaky roof with tarps and, unable to buy a new hot-water heater, took to showering at a Y.M.C.A.
“I have never said I do not owe back taxes + obscene interest,” she wrote to township leaders, “butthe global pandemic impacted the intended course of action.”
She had been advised to sell the house rather than lose the accrued equity in a property that real estate sites valued at roughly $700,000 before the fire, friends, relatives and town officials said. The conversations never went far.
“She just wanted to stay in the home she grew up in,” said Andy Golebiowski, host of the Polish American Radio Program, who met Ms. Morawski on Facebook. “Those were her roots.”
Ms. Morawski spoke proudly of those roots when she accepted the Holocaust education award.
Her father, Michael (Szeliga) Morawski, earned Poland’s highest military honor, the Virtuti Militari. He had been imprisoned, she said, in concentration camps after trying to drive the Germans from the capital during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, a rebellion that lasted 63 days and led to the deaths of more than 180,000 residents.
Wanda Morawski, a nurse born in what was then the Polish city of Borszczow (it is now part of Ukraine), ran field hospitals for the Allied forces during the war after being freed from a prison in Russia, according to her 2002 obituary.
After marrying in England and moving to Brooklyn, the couple spent 10 years “saving every penny” to buy “their American dream,” Ms. Morawski wrote.
Over the next four decades, their house in Maplewood was often filled with recent immigrants of various faiths. Her mother “would order, then pick up, kosher in Brooklyn,” Ms. Morawski said at the Holocaust remembrance event. “Everyone would speak Polish and feel comfortable for a few hours as they navigated a challenging new world.”
Ms. Morawski’s parents died within five months of each other, leaving a contested estate that led to a bitter fight between the two sisters for control of the house. In the end, Ms. Morawski was instructed to pay her sister $130,000 and was awarded the house. Her sister won title to another residential property that was in their parents’ name but was told by the court that she had “no right to enter the premises” at 60 Maplewood Avenue.
Ms. Morawski’s sister said she drove by the home each day for 15 years.
Mental health concerns
Ms. Morawski was often spotted on the block walking her dog, Hana, or tending to repairs of her 1992 Dodge Dakota. She was quick with a compliment and eagerly asked about neighbors’ children.
“Always seemed to be in the same mood — pleasant,” said Kevin Photiades, who lives down the street.
“She’s a wonderful, generous, amazing person,” said Kim Brown, a friend who remained close with Ms. Morawski after they worked together in the early 1990s at a consulting firm in Linden, N.J.
“I couldn’t imagine, emotionally, what she was going through.”
Ms. Morawski wrote about her financial trouble on social media as foreclosure loomed in 2019 and later discussed her battle with blood cancer.
Neighbors said that they had donated to the GoFundMe campaign or lent her money directly. Friends wrote to the township’s congresswoman to ask for help and dropped off soup and meals. A member of her historical book club regularly drove her to chemotherapy.
But as the date of her eviction neared in December, close friends grew increasingly worried about her mental health. She appeared to have no future plans other than lashing out publicly against the injustice she believed had caused her to lose the house.
A federal judge assigned to Ms. Morawski’s bankruptcy case, who had attended high school with her, was “heartless and biased,” she complained to the chief judge of U.S. Bankruptcy Court. “A smart, smug jock, the epitome of a privileged white male.”
A state judge who signed the eviction order was “ridiculously obsequious to the opposing attorney, who was mocking and mean to me.”
She publicly suggested that she was considering suicide. “I expect this is the last letter I will ever write,” she said in a letter to the bankruptcy judge three days before the fire. “Too bad, because I had a LOT left to offer.”
That same day, she dropped Hana at Ms. Brown’s house. The next night, she left several cherished family mementos on the back porch of her sister’s house and emailed a niece to let her know they were there.
A friend called the police and asked officers to conduct a wellness check. They arrived at the house around dinnertime, and Ms. Morawski was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where she spent 25 hours under psychiatric evaluation, according to her lawyer and a message she posted on Facebook.
She was cleared to leave hours after the eviction order became final and the locks to the house were changed.
Tax liens as investments
Many of Ms. Morawski’s problems stemmed from the difficulty she had paying taxes on the house at 60 Maplewood, a home her parents purchased in 1962 and had long ago paid off.
New Jersey requires communities to auction off unpaid tax and sewer debts annually. The buyers — lien holders — can charge 18 percent interest on debt over $1,500 and are entitled to pay any future overdue taxes on the property, expanding their investment and its steep rate of return. Bidding is often aggressive, particularly for desirable properties in affluent or gentrifying towns.
After two years, if the debt is unpaid, investors can foreclose on the property.
Unlike most other states, New Jersey permits the lien holder to keep all resale profit. Former owners get back none of their accrued equity, no matter the size of the original debt.
“When people hear about it, they think, ‘This can’t be the whole story,’” said Christina Martin, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit that tracks lien sale foreclosures nationwide. “But it is the whole story. Government thinks it can take a windfall at the expense of society’s most vulnerable people and either keep it for the public purse or give it away to private investors for their enrichment.
“Either way, it’s gross,” Ms. Martin said.
Lawyers for the foundation are preparing to argue that the practice — they call it “home equity theft” — violates the Constitution in a Minnesota case that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in January to hear.
Between 2014 and 2021, in 31 of New Jersey’s largest communities, the owners of 661 residential properties lost homes after a foreclosure that resulted from tax or sewer debt, according to an analysis by the legal foundation. The owners forfeited roughly $115 million in equity, the group found.
The lien that led to the loss of Ms. Morawski’s house dated to 2016, when Effect Lake LLC, a Virginia-based company run by Peter Chinloy, a former Temple University professor, and his son, was the winning bidder at an October tax-certificate auction.
Three-quarters of Ms. Morawski’s unpaid taxes from 2015, $12,809, plus penalties, were put up for sale.
Competition was brisk. To win the right to buy the lien, Effect Lake not only agreed to charge zero-percent interest on the initial debt, but it paid Maplewood a $92,800 premium to do so — a routine practice used to outbid competitors.
Within weeks Effect Lake had also written checks for the $17,360.04 in taxes Ms. Morawski failed to pay in 2016, debt that would grow by the maximum 18 percent interest rate. The Chinloys’ company also paid all the taxes and sewer fees for the next three years.
Ms. Morawski would later say that Effect Lake deliberately mailed crucial legal notices too late for her to respond. “Real estate investors,” she wrote, “have aggressively and ruthlessly pursued foreclosure of my property so they can flip it.”
Her sister said she offered to pay the roughly $110,000 debt in exchange for the deed to the house — a deal Ms. Morawski found unfair and refused to accept.
In 2019, Effect Lake began foreclosure proceedings.
And on Jan. 30, 2020, after an investment of roughly $175,000, it held the deed to a home worth at least three times that much. Soon after, Ms. Morawski filed for bankruptcy, arguing that the property transfer had been fraudulent, a claim the judge rejected.
While fighting to save the house in bankruptcy court, she was also undergoing chemotherapy treatments that she said sapped her energy and left her unable to focus — conditions she believed should have led the court to slow the process down.
Mr. Chinloy, who earned a doctorate in economics from Harvard and was the director of real estate programs at Temple’s business school until 2020, has written extensively about investor real estate strategies and home foreclosures. He declined to comment for this article.
‘Over her dead body’
The day of the fire Ms. Morawski lit five matches at strategic points on the first, second and third floors of the house, according to a police report.
Then she walked to the basement, “laid down on a couch and proceeded to stab herself with a knife four times in the chest,” a detective wrote.
Neighbors watched as she was taken out on a stretcher and rushed to a hospital.
Three days later, charged with aggravated arson and burglary, she was transferred to a jail in Newark. A not-guilty plea was entered on her behalf for crimes that carried a maximum penalty of more than 10 years in prison.
Her lawyer, Lisa Lopata, a public defender, stressed that Ms. Morawski was “at a very low point,” and that she “deeply regrets what happened, especially the idea that anyone could have been put at risk.”
A prosecutor, Adam Wells, argued against her release from jail, in part because of her apparent determination to risk it all to make a defiant final point.
“She made a statement and apologized for her own cliché,” Mr. Wells told a judge on Jan. 13, “that over her dead body would anyone take the house.”
Ten hours later, after more than a month in custody, Ms. Morawski walked out of jail alone wearing borrowed, oversize clothes. She waited in the dark at a nearby New Jersey Transit bus stop and transferred at Newark Penn Station, en route to a friend’s apartment in South Orange, N.J., where she remains in home detention.
“These property tax lien holders have gotten away with everything,” Ms. Morawski said in an interview.
“If I start crying, I’m just afraid that I won’t stop.”
Weeks after the blaze, much of the first floor of the house appeared intact, largely untouched by flames. But out front, a haunting reminder of the saga’s explosive end remained etched into a sidewalk poured months ago.
“EVE M LIVED HERE 1962-2022,” Ms. Morawski had carved into the wet concrete. “LIVE. ALOHA.”
Kitty Bennett and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.