With time running out before the start of the second round of the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction, a small group of activists has made a last-ditch effort to get Detroit officials to intervene and keep the homes where people live from being sold.
The group, Moratorium Now!, is urging the city to exercise its so-called “right of first refusal” to pull up to 1,915 occupied Detroit homes with more than three years of unpaid taxes out of the auction. Some of those homes were already sold in the first round of bidding, held in September. More will be sold starting Oct. 11, according to the Wayne County Treasurer's office.
“Most of [the people who are being foreclosed on] were subject to unconstitutional tax assessments and most of them should have been receiving poverty tax exemptions that never were afforded,” said Moratorium Now! organizer Jerome Goldberg, echoing the claims of a lawsuit filed against the city by the Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Goldberg argues the homes can be saved at no cost to the city by using money from the federal Hardest Hit Fund, which was designed to support homeowners in states pummeled by the housing crisis. He and other activists have suggested that the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority, which administers the Hardest Hit Funds, put some $8 million toward paying off what the city would owe the county if it were to pull the properties from the auction — assuming it would cost an average of $3,600 to rescue a home.
MSHDA says it has about $39 million left in its Loan Rescue program.
But the plan would require an amendment to the rules guiding how Hardest Hit Funds can be spent. Already, MSHDA has some of the most stringent requirements for homeowners to obtain assistance through the fund. A January audit from the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) found that more than 80 percent of Detroiters making $30,000 or less a year had been denied assistance to save their homes from tax or mortgage foreclosure. By contrast, the other 17 states with Hardest Hit Funds rejected 53 percent of homeowners making less than $30,000.
Still, MSHDA has said it would consider an amendment to allow money to go directly to the city of Detroit if it exercises its right of first refusal on foreclosed properties to be sold at auction. Any change would require approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Program rules have, to date, been amended 14 times, but the agency says it needs further follow up from housing advocates before it approaches Treasury about a rule change. MSHDA spokeswoman Katie Bach says any plan for the funds must be "sustainable" — meaning that a homeowner's earnings must be high enough to show they can stay on track with housing payments. A household is not eligible for help if the payments would amount to more than 45 percent of its annual income.
With negotiations with MSHDA at a standstill and just days to go until the second round of the tax foreclosure auction, Goldberg and several other activists with Moratorium Now! on Tuesday suggested that the city purchase the properties from the county on a “credit buy” while it waits for MSHDA to act.
The activists went before Detroit City Council to make their case and later delivered a letter detailing the request to Mayor Mike Duggan’s office. Goldberg and housing advocates say they made the same rounds last month — hand-delivering letters that described their proposal to each council member’s office as well as the office of the mayor — and never received any response.
“We believe this is a practical solution,” said Goldberg. “Their refusal to acknowledge it either reflects incompetence … or it reflects an agenda to remove more and more poor people from the neighborhoods of Detroit.”
Duggan spokesman John Roach says the mayor's office never received the first letter from housing advocates. He said Tuesday afternoon that the office would need time to review the proposal before deciding whether to exercise its right of first refusal on nearly 2,000 properties.
But Vicky Kovari, with Detroit’s neighborhoods department, suggested that the city is ill-equipped to purchase so many occupied properties. Officials did spare 80 renter-occupied homes from this auction cycle using the right of first refusal. Through a just-announced pilot program being conducted in conjunction with Quicken Loans and United Community Housing Coalition, those renters will have a chance to buy their homes for $2,500 to $5,500. More than 1,000 households in the auction this year are renter-occupied, meaning the landlords of those properties failed to pay their taxes.
The number of occupied homes in this year’s tax foreclosure auction is far lower than recent years, with city and county officials attributing the improvement to a reduced-interest payment plan and better outreach to promote assistance available. But housing advocates have said the lower number of homes in the auction belies the fact that tens of thousands of households are still at least two years behind on their taxes — meaning they could soon receive foreclosure notices and wind up next year’s auction. About 36,000 Wayne County residents are currently on payment plans for the taxes they owe on their homes.