Wayne County Treasurer Raymond J. Wojtowicz is set to retire in December and with his departure comes an opportunity to not only find a replacement but possibly re-evaluate the foreclosure system, which has been criticized for displacing thousands of Detroiters each year during the auction.
This week Clerk Cathy Garrett, Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Chief Probate Judge Freddie Burton Jr. are interviewing seven candidates who hope to replace Wojtowicz as the interim county treasurer before the November 2016 elections when voters will get to elect the new 'Money Man'.
Currently there is an eclectic crew in the interim position running: Beverly Kindle-Walker (a former Detroit City Council candidate), David J. Szymanski (the recently retired Chief Deputy Treasurer), Jerry Paffendorf (the CEO of Loveland Technologies), Richard P. Hathaway (Chief Assistant prosecutor under Kym Worthy), D. Etta Wilcoxon (former Detroit clerk candidate), James Walter Williams IV (former Detroit Public Schools board candidate) and Philip M. Cavanagh (a former state representative from Redford Township).
Of the list there are a couple names that stand out.
First, Szymanski, who worked for the treasury for almost five years before retiring this summer after county officials suggested retirement healthcare would be eliminated in the future. While retirees can only work 1,000 hours when they return to a county job, the Detroit News
reports that during his interview today Syzamnski indicated that he believed he could get around this rule. While his connection to the treasury in its current iteration may seem like reason to disqualify him as a potential innovator, Szymanski stresses some of the reforms he has supported while in the position, such as a state law that reduced interest rates for many homeowners by two-thirds.
The other name that gets our attention is Paffendorf, who has played a key role in the city’s foreclosure and blight removal process through his maps and data aggregation site over at Loveland Technologies. Because of the data he and his colleagues have collected over the years Paffendorf is intimately familiar with the downsides of the current foreclosure regime, such as the fact that over 8,000 occupied homes were included in this years tax auction and that one out of six occupied homes purchased in the 2014 auction ended up being abandoned after just one year.
The Wayne County Tax auction was created in 1999 as part of a series of legislative reforms that then-Gov. John Engler passed to speed up the foreclosure process and revitalize abandoned and unused properties. How Detroit enacted the laws — specifically around the auction — has been much criticized, as it emphasizes liquidation over proper urban planning, and never established protocols for informing interested parties about the state of a property.
Margaret Dewar a professor of urban and regional planning at University of Michigan authored a 2009 paper
that looked at the juxtaposition between Flint’s tax foreclosure system — which has foreclosure prevention protocols in place— and Detroit’s, which many complain lacks these safety nets.
Not only does Genesee County actively work to help families avoid foreclosure, but when occupied homes do end up at auction the county clumps them into unattractive bundles that are destined for the land bank where occupants can negotiate plans with the city. In Wayne County, on the other hand, almost all occupied homes are sold individually in the traditional auction.
This latter approach, according to Dewar, caters to investors and speculators versus the actual citizens struggling in the homes.
Speculators and investors getting dibs on a city has created some fraught feelings around an auction, which also has the practical role of collecting funds for a deeply distressed city. Currently with the Detroit auction there is no opportunity to check out the condition of a home prior to bidding, individuals must pay in full within 24 hours of winning and deposit of over $2,000 must be submitted in order to gain access to the online bidding arena. These rules slant towards city newbies — or those with cash to burn — and places the people who have stuck around at something of a disadvantage.
The auction has forced Detroit to confront some uncomfortable truths. When nearly 40 percent of the population is living under the poverty line, does kicking people out of their homes make the most sense for reviving the community and creating stabilized neighborhoods? These of course will be questions for the interim treasurer to ponder.