More than 1,000 Detroit homeowners have paid off their overdue property taxes with money provided from a $15 million fund set up by Rocket Mortgage founder Dan Gilbert and his wife, Jennifer Gilbert.
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Beyond those who have wiped out their late property tax through the Detroit Tax Relief Fund, another 3,000 are applying to eliminate the debt that puts them at risk of losing their home, according to the Detroit-based Rocket Community Fund. The tax relief program was launched in late March.
“We’ve got a really robust pipeline” of applicants, said Laura Grannemann, vice president of Rocket Community Fund, the philanthropic arm of Rocket Companies, which includes the former Quicken Loans, Inc.. The online mortgage lender officially changed its name to Rocket Mortgage in July.
Far fewer property tax foreclosures
The data is the latest sign that Detroit may avoid further widespread property tax foreclosures after nearly two decades of devastating loss. The foreclosures created citywide blight and empty homes. It helped turn Detroit from a city of majority homeowners to one where most are now renters.
From 2002 to 2016, nearly 1 in 3 Detroit properties ended up in the annual Wayne County auction of tax-foreclosed properties, according to City data. The peak was in 2015, when 24,793 properties were foreclosed upon. Between 2015 and 2019, more than 50,512 properties in the city had been tax-foreclosed, according to data on the Wayne County Treasurer’s website.
Tax foreclosure is the government’s last recourse to recover delinquent property taxes from a property owner. An owner faces foreclosure after not paying taxes for three years. Properties are placed into an online tax foreclosure auction where anyone can bid. If the properties aren’t sold, the properties are turned over to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, the largest property owner in the city.
The number of tax foreclosures have been steadily dropping after years of outcry, including lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union and political pushback from housing reform advocates.
Wayne County won’t foreclose on any occupied properties this year, after a judge issued an order in May to delay its annual auction due to COVID-19. County Treasurer Eric Sabree requested the delay. At the time, Sabree said there were nearly 2,400 owner-occupied homes and 4,100 nonowner-occupied residential properties, such as rentals, that were facing tax foreclosure this year in the county. He didn’t specify how many were in Detroit.
Detroit Tax Relief Fund
The Rocket Community Fund also played a role in boosting awareness of two programs aimed at offering tax relief that few Detroiters were using.
One is the Homeowner’s Property Tax Assistance Program (HPTAP). That’s the City initiative that exempts or lowers property tax bills for the current year, but not for previous years. It’s based on household income or circumstances. For the full tax exemption, a family of two must have income of less than $21,205. The maximum income for a partial exemption of 25 percent is $26,205 a year.
The second program is Wayne County’s Pay as You Stay (PAYS). It offers payment plans and eliminates penalties, interest and fees.
In late March, the Gilberts pledged $15 million to pay the back property taxes of an estimated 20,000 low-income Detroiters through the new Detroit Tax Relief Fund. The fund was created by the Gilbert Family Foundation and Rocket Community Fund to eliminate remaining delinquent property taxes for homeowners who have been approved for HPTAP and PAYS. The City and County programs reduce a homeowner’s property tax debt but often do not eliminate it completely, which is the goal of the tax relief fund.
Average tax debt is around $3,000
So far, the average property tax debt Detroiters needed to pay off was between $3,000 and $3,500, said the Rocket Fund’s Grannemann. That amount was usually reduced to about $1,500 after residents enrolled in HPTAP and PAYS. The Detroit Tax Relief Fund paid off the rest.
Paying off back property taxes is a step in the right direction, said Joshua Akers, a University of Michigan associate professor, who has been studying the impact of Detroit foreclosures for a decade.
“It’s an immediate step. It’s helpful, no question,” Akers said. “But if we are talking about creating generational wealth, there are many other challenges that need to be addressed,” he said, ranging from jobs and education.
Another $485 million
The $15 million tax relief fund was just a slice of the $500 million the Gilberts vowed to invest in Detroit neighborhoods over the next decade. The plan is to underwrite $50 million annually over the next 10 years focusing on issues that could range from jobs, home repair and supporting entrepreneurs. So far, not much detail has been provided about the next steps.
But home repair and narrowing the digital divide are two issues that continue to be brought up by Detroit residents, Granneman said.
“One of the really cool things about the Detroit Tax Relief Fund is that all along the way we’re staying engaged with the residents. We’ve been asking them a lot of questions to better understand what other barriers to economic opportunities exist in their lives,” Grannemann said.
Finding access to home repair resources and the digital divide has “certainly risen to the top,” she said.
How to apply
The Detroit Tax Relief Fund is working with the Wayne Metro Community Action Agency to administer the program. Interested homeowners can go to the organization’s website to apply. They will be asked whether their home is their primary residence, the number of people who live in their home and whether their household income is lower than the maximum income for the City’s property tax exemption program, among other questions. Homeowners can also call 313-244-0274.