houses
Housing experts say that renters displaced by foreclosure must understand their rights and policymakers must develop programs to help tenants. (Bridge file photo)

Nearly 8,000 occupied homes in Wayne County are at risk of foreclosure starting April 1, according to Wayne County Treasurer’s data from this month, with a staggering 5,182 occupied by “non-owners” — meaning renters and land contract holders. 

The predicament — potential instability for individuals who have little power when it comes to making sure their homes’ tax bill gets paid — exposes a complicated hitch in the region’s efforts to curb foreclosure. While Detroit and Wayne County have touted declining occupied-foreclosure numbers over the years, a majority of the programs to bring down the stats have revolved around helping owner-occupants. 

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“Most people at risk of dispossession cannot benefit from many of the existing programs that are now in place for homeowners, and have no control over whether they will have a roof over their head in a matter of months,” said Alexa Eisenberg, a post-doctoral researcher with the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions. 

While the City of Detroit has the Make it Home program as a tool for helping renters stuck in the crosshairs of the auction, the program operates on a much smaller scale. Between 2017 and 2019 1,157 properties were part of the initiative, which uses the Right of First Refusal to buy properties slated for auction and then sell them to the occupants with zero-interest loans. 

Outside of Make it Home, the majority of the programs, and payment plans, aim to stop owner-occupied homes from going to auction.

Even on the Wayne County Treasurer’s website the “goal” is stated to be “ZERO Owner-Occupied Foreclosed Properties in Wayne County” as opposed to “zero occupied properties.” 

(Wayne County Treasurer’s Office screenshot)

“The tax foreclosure process has always caused immense harm to tenants and other non-owner occupants, but thanks in large part to unmitigated tax foreclosures on occupied homes in past years, Detroit is now a majority-renter city,” said Eisenberg, flicking at the potential next chapter in the region’s ongoing foreclosure saga — an eviction crisis — and the links between past foreclosures and the future wave.  

UNDERSTANDING THE DATA 

Between 2005 and 2015 more than 1-in-3 Detroit properties — 139,699 of 384,672 — were dispossessed through mortgage or tax foreclosures, according to a Detroit News study. During that same period, the city, once known for having the most Black homeowners in the county, became a majority renter city. 

The Wayne County Tax Auction was created in 1999 to reactivate abandoned space and recoup funds but it has been widely criticized for ensnaring many cash-poor individuals, causing them to lose their greatest assets. While the number of occupied properties has declined over the years, the percentage of non-owner occupants caught up in the chaos has increased. 

The Wayne County Treasurer’s office said they could not provide past year data on owner-occupied versus non-owner-occupied properties at risk of foreclosure before the March 31 redemption period without a Freedom of Information Act request. While waiting for the request to be fulfilled, BridgeDetroit assembled an analysis based on previous year data publicly released by Wayne County as well as past data from city and county officials.  

Between 2014 and 2016 non-owner-occupied properties represented roughly a quarter of the foreclosed occupied properties, according to data from a September 2017 City of Detroit email.

In 2017, after Detroit shifted to a majority renter city, non-owner-occupied properties increased to nearly 60% of the occupied properties that were foreclosed, according to the city’s data.. 

Non-owner-occupied properties made up about half of the foreclosed properties in 2018 and 2019, according to data posted to the Wayne County Treasurer’s website in summer 2019.  

A two-year moratorium on occupied properties at auction was in place in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19. 

While 2022 foreclosure data will likely change as the March 31 redemption deadline nears, as of March, 65% of the occupied properties at risk of foreclosure are non-owner occupied. This is a 3% increase from last month when nearly 13,000 occupied properties were at risk of foreclosure and nearly 8,000 were non-owner occupied. 

The BridgeDetroit analysis shows that while owners are getting on payment plans, and the number of occupied properties slated for auction continues to drop, the percentage of rental properties at risk is rising. 

Whether this rising number of tenant-occupied properties is a byproduct of past auctions creating shifts in ownership or economic realities is unclear. 

“I’m not sure if the auction plays a role,” said Joshua Akers, an assistant professor of geography and urban and regional studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, pointing out that this year there is also a general build-up of occupied properties slated for foreclosure due to the two-year moratorium. “You basically have three years of unredeemed properties in this auction.” 

Additionally, Akers wonders if the reality is caused by pandemic financials.  

“The rental market is completely out of whack just in terms of what’s going on,” he said. “When landlords are looking to cut corners or lack profitability one way to bridge that gap is not paying taxes.” 

This cutting corners, however, is exactly why Ted Philips, director of United Community Housing Coalition, is not shocked by the statistics. 

“It’s not surprising that there is such a vast number of tenant-occupied homes at risk of foreclosure this year, it has been a growing problem,” said Philips. “But what does it really mean? It means investors aren’t paying taxes. Investors aren’t investing in Detroit.” 

Philips notes that owner-occupied properties at auction have been decreasing, pointing to programs like HOPE and PAYS, which reduce — and in some cases eliminate — taxes owed by owner-occupants. 

“I would think 99.5% would be in foreclosure this year but for that,” said Philips. “That’s a damn good job by the City and all groups that support it.” 

Tenants, on the other hand, have less options. But in a strange way, Philips believes a landlord losing a property to foreclosure can, in fact, be good for a tenant. If they know their rights, that is. 

“Tenants have no obligation to pay rent to someone who doesn’t own the property,” he said, pointing out that once a property is foreclosed on April 1, it then belongs to the Wayne County Treasurer. 

“You can stop paying rent,” said Philips, pointing out that the individuals can also stay in the property until a new owner comes around and use that time to save money so they can find a new place in the fall, or even buy at the auction themselves. 

“The owner will be the Wayne County Treasurer, who in the past want no part in any evictions,” he continued pointing out that an eviction — which would leave the property susceptible to stripping — would, in fact, hurt the treasurer’s bottom line. 

“It’s really crucial to get to the folks in these homes and let them know their rights,” said Philips. “Make sure if someone says they’re squatting in a foreclosed home that the police know that’s not a thing. They didn’t become a trespasser because the landlord didn’t pay taxes.” 

When asked how Detroit was responding to the increase in rentals at risk of being foreclosed upon, Chelsea Neblett, a financial empowerment manager for the city, said the county treasurer was the best place to go. 

“The Wayne County Treasurer’s Office would be the best to respond to foreclosure prevention assistance for owners that do not occupy the home as their primary residence and are at-risk of losing their properties. WCTO has a variety of payment plan options available, including for non-owner occupants,” Neblett wrote in an email, noting that the Make It Home project was also an option. 

The Wayne County Treasurer’s Office did not respond to questions about what renters should do if their properties are at risk.  

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