- Bennie Ward still lives in the house on East 21st Street that was remade on popular TV program
- He and his mother, Clara Ward, got the new house 12 years ago to help with their work with children
- Bennie Ward, legally blind and on disability, had assessment dropped by 80%, but back taxes have put house on tax sale list for September
When ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” famously unveiled Clara Ward’s new house at 650 E. 21st St. in July 2009, the large activity room on the first floor gleamed.
Ward liked to call the space a playroom. It was designed as a place where she could host needy children, continuing the work she had carried out for years in Erie through her Youth Development Center.
The playroom is now the site of an indoor garage sale.
Tables are topped with toys, books and household items.
A Junior Monopoly game here.
A box of squeezable “stress balls” over there.
A bike along a wall.
Two years after Ward died at 80, her son Bennie Ward has set up the sale to try to raise money to keep the house, where he still lives.
Bennie Ward, 58, is at risk of losing the house due to unpaid property taxes.
He needs to come up with about $5,000 by Sept. 27, the date of Erie County’s annual upset tax sale.
Otherwise, someone else could buy the 2,700-foot house at the tax sale for a fraction of of its value.
“I’m here selling this stuff,” Ward said, referring to items he said he has accumulated over the years, “to try to be able to stay in my house.”
Ward is also trying to break a cycle that has plagued the residence at 650 E. 21st St. since even before “Extreme Makeover” crew, with host Ty Pennington in the lead, demolished the old and dilapidated Ward homestead and erected the shining showpiece.
For years, Clara Ward, who had the degenerative muscular disease myasthenia gravis, and then Bennie Ward, who is legally blind, struggled to pay the house’s property taxes.
And though the Wards were regularly able to avert tax sales, most recently a year ago, Bennie Ward’s options have become increasingly limited, leaving him to set up the garage sale inside his house and search for other ways to raise money.
He and his relatives are planning a backyard fish fry on Sept. 10 and 11. For sale at the fish fry will be $20 T-shirts emblazoned with the message “Save Bennie’s Home,” and a photo of the house and Bennie Ward.
“I’m trying to do something,” Ward said. “I can’t say that I have a plan.”
Erie businessman Nick Scott Sr., who supported Clara Ward’s mission, said he is interested in helping Bennie Ward develop a plan.
Scott rescued the Wards from their tax problems before, and he said he would like to see a fix that ends the cycle that keeps putting the house at 650 E. 21st St. on the tax sale list. Even if Bennie Ward comes up with money to avoid this year’s tax sale, the persistent delinquencies could very well put him on next year’s list.
“The concern is, what is the long-term solution?” Scott said when the Erie Times-News contacted him about Bennie Ward’s tax woes.
“I have loyalty to Clara,” Scott said. “I always wanted to help her.”
Remembering a life:Erie’s Clara Ward, known for “Extreme Makeover” house, dies
‘Between a rock and a hard place’
Properties in Erie County go on the upset tax sale list if the owner is delinquent in paying property taxes for two consecutive years.
The tax sale list for Sept. 27 will publish in Friday’s Erie Times-News and post that day on the website for the Erie County Tax Claim Bureau. The listing shows the upset price for the house at 650 E. 21st St. as $14,551.80. That is the minimum amount a would-be buyer would have to make to purchase the house on Sept. 27
The $14,551.80 represents approximate back taxes, costs and penalties for this year as well as final back taxes, cost and penalties for the past two years, with the delinquencies for 2019 and 2020 putting the house on the tax sale list, according to the Tax Claim Bureau. The taxes, costs and penalties owed on the house over those two key years, according to county property records, are $4,964.22 for 2019 and $4,906.75 for 2020.
For Bennie Ward to get the house off the tax sale list, he would have to pay the 2019 taxes in full — the bill of about $5,000. He is prohibited from entering an installment plan to pay the taxes over time because he and his mother defaulted on an installment plan in 2018, according to the Tax Claim Bureau. State law prevents a delinquent taxpayer from entering into an installment plan within three years after defaulting on an installment plan.
“I am between a rock and a hard place,” Bennie Ward said. “I want to make sure it doesn’t happen that I am in the same situation again.”
He said he and his mother tried their best to keep up with the property taxes using their limited income from their monthly disability payments — about $800 for her and another $800 for him.
“When my mom passed, that was big,” Ward said. “That was half of the income.”
Not alone with ‘Makeover’ mishaps
Other “Extreme Makeover” families have faced consequences similar to Bennie Ward’s.
Though immensely popular, ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which aired from 2003 to 2012, drew criticism after some recipients of new homes had to let them go, unable to keep up with skyrocketing mortgages, taxes and utility bills, according to USA Today.
Unexpected end:Bank forecloses on ‘Extreme Makeover’ homeowner
The troubles that those families experienced influenced the development of the successor to the ABC show, the HGTV reboot of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” which started airing on HGTV in February 2020, those involved in the new show said.
They said they focused the show on the construction of more modest homes that the recipients could afford, rather than on McMansions or other large residences that could lead to hardship.
In developing the new show, “it was something we talked about at every twist and turn,” Loren Ruch, HGTV’s group senior VP for production and development, told USA Today in February 2020. “It’s a show where we’re celebrating families rather than exploiting situations, and we want to make sure we help their lives long after ‘Extreme Makeover.’ ”
The host of the HGTV show, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, known for starring in the ABC hit “Modern Family,” said in the same report: “We’re not giving people more than they need. You’re not going to see crazy playrooms, slides going into pools.” The show is “changing people’s lives, but not people’s lifestyles,” he said. “We don’t have the budgets to create these mansions.”
Reboot:Why ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition’ is ready to move that bus again, on HGTV
Bills and taxes
The tax difficulties for Clara and Bennie Ward intensified soon after the “Extreme Makeover” house went up in 106 hours on July 2, 2019. The new construction increased the total assessed value of the property from $37,910 to $125,400, sending the taxes higher.
The new house also brought higher utility bills, which Clara Ward also said had turned into a burden. In an interview in July 2019, a month before her death, Ward said she still worried about the back taxes. She said the electric bills had become so expensive that she and her son never turned on the cluster of chandeliers — made of plastic utensils, in a unique touch — that grace the living room.
Photo gallery:Looking back at “Extreme Makeover” in Erie
The two-story house also has an elevator, which helped Clara Ward, who used a wheelchair; two bedrooms; two bathrooms; and two kitchens, one for residential use and one for use in the activity area that is part of the Youth Development Center.
In another interview, in 2014, Clara Ward said she would not give back the gift of her new house.
“I was working with families and kids in a bad house,” she said in 2014. “Now this is a beautiful home. It’s much easier to work in. I would never want to go back. We are better off now, even with the burden of utilities” and taxes.
Bennie Ward, in an interview on Tuesday, echoed his mother.
“I am not blaming ‘Extreme Makeover,’ ” he said. “They were wonderful people.
“Your taxes, they will go up. But it is better than living in a dump. And I was living in a dump.”
Lowering the value
In the years prior to the visit from “Extreme Makeover,” the Wards had fallen behind on paying their property taxes on the house at 650 E. 21st St., which Clara and Bennie Ward bought in 1994.
The original house at 650 E. 21st St. was sold at a judicial tax sale in December 2006 after the Wards failed to pay the taxes for six years, owing $8,228, according to tax claim records. A property goes to a judicial tax sale, also known as a lien-free tax sale, if it fails to sell at an upset tax sale.
A woman from Florida bought the house for a bid of $800 and transferred it to Clara Ward’s Youth Development Center at no cost in May 2008. Before the new house was built a year later, Ward had a delinquent property tax bill of $3,297.
Erie businessman Nick Scott Sr., who supported Ward’s mission to help needy children, paid the back taxes a month after the new house was built 2009. The payment removed the immediate threat of a tax sale.
The tax problems lingered.
The Wards tried to get the property declared tax-exempt, citing their work through her Youth Development Center, but the Erie County Board of Tax Assessment Appeals denied the request in 2014. The board was concerned that Wards rather than a nonprofit owned the house and that Wards received no government funding for the programs.
The Assessment Board in 2014 recommended that the Wards attempt to get the assessed value of the house reduced, which would lower the property taxes.
Bennie Ward got a reduction in September 2020.
The Assessment Board unanimously lowered the assessed value of the house to $68,960, a drop of 80%, according to assessment records. The board based its decision partly on an independent appraisal of the house that put its value at $80,000.
Bennie Ward’s brother, Donald, who lives in Buffalo, arranged for the appraisal. In coming up with a value of $80,000 — considerably less than the original assessment of $125,400 — the appraiser, Donald Marinelli, of Erie, took into account that the house at 650 E. 21st St., near Reed Street, is in a neighborhood with a “declining life cycle,” according to the appraisal.
The Assessment Board also considered the value of other houses in the neighborhood when the board dropped the assessed value of Ward’s house, said Scott Maas, the chief assessor for Erie County.
Another tax sale saga:Lake Erie beach house: Ownership stays in limbo as county, estate appeal tax sale ruling
Though the estimated cost to build the “Extreme Makeover” house was $370,000, and the original assessed value was $125,400, Maas said the board determined that the market value of the house was closer to $68,960, given the situation with the neighborhood and other factors. Maas advises the Assessment Board but is not one of its three members.
“Even though the house is new, considering the neighborhood, the market doesn’t exist,” Maas said. “The board has to look at that in reality.”
The new assessment of $68,960 went into effect on Jan. 1. The change put the property taxes for 2021 at $2,193.17, down from $4,173 in 2020, when the assessed value was $125,400.
The change will benefit Bennie Ward starting this year, but he still owes the two years of back taxes based on the larger assessed value. He said he is also trying to keep up his mother’s legacy of helping underprivileged children.
“We are still doing what we can,” Ward said. “But bills, bills, bills. I need help.”
For years, Clara and Bennie Ward relied on the generosity of others to pay their taxes and advance the programs with the Youth Development Center. Bennie Ward’s resources are growing thinner.
His brother Donald, who paid for the appraisal, also came up with thousands of dollars to pay a portion of the back taxes a year ago, which got the property off the upset tax sale list for September 2020.
Donald Ward said he is unable to make such a payment again. He said he would like his brother to try again at getting a tax exemption.
“I am a retiree on a fixed income,” said Donald Ward, 65. “I don’t have that kind of money to pay the taxes for my brother every year.”
Donald and Bennie Ward’s sister Cynthia Ward-Moore is assisting when she can. Ward-Moore, 63, who lives in another house in Erie, is helping to organize the September fish fry with her son and Bennie Ward’s nephew, Antonio Ward.
“I love my brother, and I want the best for him,” Ward-Moore said. “This was my mother’s house, too. I am working for this. I am fighting for it.”
Ward-Moore said she trusts in Jesus that the predicament will get resolved.
‘A lot of stress’
In 2009, when Nick Scott paid the back taxes on the house, a board of directors was formed to help Clara Ward manage her Youth Development Center.
The head of the board was John Maleno, president of Maleno Real Estate Development, the local builder of the “Extreme Makeover” house. Maleno later left the board and is now retired from the Maleno businesses.
In an email, the president of Maleno Custom Home Building, Dominic Maleno, said the Maleno businesses “do not have a relationship” with the Youth Development Center or Bennie Ward.
Nick Scott remains in touch with Bennie Ward, and Ward praised Scott for his history of helping with field trips to such places as Scott’s Splash Lagoon, near the Scott family’s string of hotels along upper Peach Street in Summit Township.
Scott said he would get in contact with Bennie Ward about the latest back taxes. Scott set a clear goal.
“How can I help without this going on forever?” he said.
Bennie Ward spoke to Scott on Wednesday, and said they are going to “see what they can do.”
While he waits on what might happen next, Ward continues to tend to his indoor garage sale. He said it has been up for several months. He advertises it with a sign posted on the house’s front door.
Ward said he has rejected suggestion that he sell furnishings in the house, such as the chandeliers, to raise money. He said he would never think of parceling out or leaving the house, a place he calls home, a place with amenities, like air conditioning, that he says he still enjoys.
“There are so many things about this house that I do love,” Ward said.
Ward said he knows he needs a financial blueprint that relies more on just fundraisers. He said they typically don’t bring in much money.
“It is a lot of stress,” Ward said.
And he has a deadline. He needs $5,000 by the tax sale on Sept, 27.
“I don’t want to wait until that day,” Ward said.
Contact Ed Palattella at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.