New Detroit tax foreclosure data reveal hopeful signs — with one exception

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More than 10,500 Detroiters will get tax relief this year but renters are vulnerable in foreclosures. (BridgeDetroit photo by Ralph Jones)

Detroit is making progress in its annual battle to prevent thousands of homeowners from losing their property through tax foreclosure. The number of at-risk properties is dropping and the number of low-income homeowners able to secure tax relief is rising, according to various data released this week.

The data show overall improvement except for one category: thousands of renters who live in properties that are in danger of being foreclosed later this year. 

“Tenants are another story. That’s where the danger is in 2021,” Alex Alsup posted on Twitter last week. Alsup is housing director of the Rocket Community Fund and one of the main forces behind a comprehensive study of the city’s foreclosure crisis.

Community groups like the Osborn Neighborhood Alliance say renters living in properties at risk of foreclosure has been a persistent issue, said Quincy Jones, president of the northeast Detroit nonprofit. 

Since 2018, Jones and other Osborn residents have been among scores of Detroiters who knocked on the doors of properties in their neighborhoods that were at risk of foreclosure. Many homeowners were eager to learn there were payment plans and other remedies, Jones said. 

“When we came across renters, they often had no idea that their landlords were behind on property taxes,” Jones said. Because of COVID-19, the community group hasn’t been able to do the personal contact with residents it has in the past, Jones said.  

That lack of outreach makes Jones concerned. “We just don’t have a feel if that situation is growing or how much it may have grown,” he said, referring to renters who may be at risk. 

Property tax foreclosures have plagued Detroit for 20 years, leaving the city with tens of thousands of blighted and vacant homes. From 2002 to 2016, nearly 1 in 3 Detroit properties ended up in the annual Wayne County auction of tax foreclosed properties, according to Rocket Community Fund’s Neighbor to Neighbor study. 

The housing crisis and the Great Recession have caused a sharp loss in Black home ownership in Detroit, which until the early 2000s had some of the highest levels of African-American homeownership in the United States, according to an Urban Institute study. From 2000 to 2016, the percentage of African Americans who own their own homes dropped in Michigan more than any other state, down to 40 percent from just over half in 2000, according to the Urban Institute. Much of the decline was in Detroit, according to the study.

In the past several years a widespread effort began to halt foreclosures, particularly of occupied homes. There’s been reform-minded changes in city policies, new state laws, an ACLU lawsuit and other legal challenges, and ongoing campaigns by foundations and housing advocacy groups. In 2018, the Rocket Community Fund, the United Community Housing Coalition and 35 other community organizations mobilized an operation to knock on more than 60,000 doors, in an attempt to reach all Detroiters at risk of foreclosure. 

The result has been a steep drop in tax foreclosures of homes for several years. 

In 2019, 521 Detroit homes were foreclosed on, according to county data. That’s a 94 percent drop from 2015, when 9,111 homes went through tax foreclosure, according to the Rocket Community Fund. 

Last year, tax foreclosures were halted in Wayne County due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s too soon to tell how many tax foreclosures will happen this year because thousands of homeowners are seeking steps to get on payment plans and other measures. 

Here’s a snapshot of the property tax foreclosures in Detroit at the start of 2021: 

The number of residential properties at risk is down

As of Jan. 18, there were 15,263 residential properties in Detroit subject to tax foreclosure, according to the Wayne County Treasurer. Remember, the 15,263 figure is a raw number. Most of those homeowners will likely get on various payment programs that can get them off the foreclosure path, according to analysts and city officials. 

Under state law, property owners with taxes delinquent for at least one year reach a “forfeited status” on March 1. The owner has a year to pay, or arrange a payment plan, before being foreclosed on. 

Far fewer Detroit homeowners are at risk of tax foreclosure as of mid-January compared to the same period for the past two years, according to analysis. 

Related:

As of mid-January, 13,087 Detroit homeowners are delinquent on more than two years in payments. That puts them at risk of foreclosure, but the owners still have time to avoid that status. That’s down  2,950 properties from the  same period last year and 5,000 fewer than in 2019. 

Record number of homeowners getting relief 

More than 10,500 Detroiters have received property tax exemptions this year based on their income, city officials said. The number is expected to grow as the city’s Assessor Office reviews applications. 

The 10,500 approved is already a record number of property tax exemptions under the city’s Homeowner Property Tax Assistance Program (HPTAP). The program grants homeowners exemptions on their current year property taxes, based on household income or circumstances.

That’s a 15 percent increase over the 9,089 approved last year. In six years, the program has helped more than 10,000 Detroiters avoid foreclosure, according to city officials.

Still, many housing advocates say the tax exemption remains underutilized.  “Every year, about 40,000 Detroiters could be eligible,” said Michele Oberholtzer, director of tax foreclosure prevention at United Community Housing Coalition. 

In 2018, the city settled a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan that contended thousands of Detroiters paid property taxes they didn’t owe because they didn’t know they were exempt, and the city didn’t tell them.  Many lost their homes at tax foreclosure auctions when they couldn’t pay the taxes.

The settlement required the city to notify owners of homes worth $95,000 or less about the poverty exemption in an annual mailing.  The application was also put online.

Renters remain at risk

Data show the biggest group in danger of being impacted by tax foreclosure are renters who live in properties late on payments. 

Figures provided by Wayne County Treasurer’s show that 8,940 residential non-owner occupied properties in Detroit are subject to foreclosure — again a raw figure that will likely drop. That’s about 29 percent more than the 6,323 owner-occupied residential properties subject to foreclosure in January 2020.

The mid-January data show a 1 percent increase of renters living in properties at-risk of foreclosure compared to January 2020. 

Oberholtzer, director of the UCHC’s tax foreclosure prevention program, recognizes the increase as a persistent issue, she said. 

“There’s landlords who, every year, pay just enough to avoid foreclosure,” she said.

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