Homes owned by churches avoid thousands in property taxes

People live in multi-million dollar homes without paying property taxes

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - A Local 10 investigation found pastors living in multi-million dollar homes exempt from paying property taxes -- because their homes are owned by churches. But neighbors say they don't see large congregations at either home.

A 12,000-square-foot home in Coral Springs that has a pool, guest house, and several garages was recently assessed at at $1.9 million.

Records show the previous owner, a former Miami Dolphin, paid $50,000 a year in property taxes -- but the current owner pays nothing.

A 5,000-square-foot house on the New River is worth $2 million, but the man who lives there, Sonny Irons, hasn't paid property taxes in years.

Why? Both homes are owned by churches.

"It's a house hosting religious services," said Broward Property Appraiser Lori Parrish.

The Church of the Bible Understanding owns the home in Coral Springs. Since the organization is classified as a non-profit, the home qualifies as tax exempt.

However, neighbors said they don't see cars lined up or large congregations gathering for services.

A spokeswoman for the Church of the Bible Understanding said the home is used for Bible study and prayer. It's also the primary residence of Stewart Trail, a former vacuum salesman and carpet cleaner who founded the church.

"There is really nothing fancy about this house," said the spokeswoman.

"Federal law governs religious facilities," said Parrish. "The law is the law, and we follow the law. That's it -- it's that simple. We don't make the laws but we're given a set of rules that we comply with."

The Seafarer's Church of the Creator owns the house on the New River, where Irons and his wife live. Irons is the church's pastor.

In 2010, Parrish tried taking away Iron's tax exempt status but settled. Neighbors said they have never seen more than 10 people at the home.

The Internal Revenue Service only audits homes used for church purposes if there's a red flag.

"Can I open up a church in my house and invite a few friends over, pray, and be tax exempt?" Jeff Weinsier asked Parrish.

"It would depend," she replied. "First of all, your house could no longer be in your name."

Parrish said homeowners applying for tax exemptions must file forms with the state and IRS, which approves the non-profit status.

"It's not as easy as you might think," she said.

Irons didn't return calls for comment.

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