About 1,000 nonowner occupied homes in Detroit, including rental properties, went into tax foreclosure this year — a big uptick from right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
At the same time, the number of owner occupied properties in the city that are headed to the Wayne County Treasurer’s fall auction this year remains around pre-pandemic levels — an indicator that programs meant to keep those homes from foreclosure are working.
That’s according to an analysis by Alex Alsup, vice president of research and development at Regrid, a parcel data technology company, who looked at how many occupied homes in Detroit were tax foreclosed.
Being in a foreclosed property may leave renters in a vulnerable position but they still have rights, housing experts said.
Tax foreclosure is the process by which homeowners lose their property because they didn’t pay their property taxes. For the past two years, foreclosures on occupied properties were halted in Wayne County by the Treasurer’s Office and a court ruling because of the economic hardships of the pandemic.
In 2020, there were no foreclosures because of the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic blow. In 2021, only foreclosures on unoccupied properties and vacant land continued.
This year, the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office withheld from foreclosure for another year owner-occupied homes with delinquent tax debt from 2017 to 2019. That protection did not, however, cover property owners with tax debt in 2016 or prior and nonowner occupied homes, such as rentals.
As of Monday, across Wayne County, there are 3,465 properties in the auction this year, according to the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office. Of that, 1,164 are nonowner occupied and 349 owner occupied properties. The vast majority are in Detroit.
Alsup identified 3,218 Detroit properties, as of Aug. 7, that will be in the tax foreclosure auction. Of that, 1,025 are renter occupied properties and 265 are owner occupied homes. In 2019, 271 renter occupied homes and 250 owner occupied properties were foreclosed.
Some of the renter properties may be occupied by land contract holders, Alsup cautioned.
The number of foreclosed renter occupied properties this year isn’t surprising, said Margaret Dewar, a professor in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. That’s because there’s a “backlog” of properties that hadn’t been foreclosed for the past two years due to moratoriums, she said.
Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree also attributed the increase to a “build up” of properties from 2019 to 2022 that would have otherwise been foreclosed.
But the stakes are high for renters because the properties will likely get sold to new owners, rent may go up or the tenant may get evicted, Dewar said.
Ted Phillips, executive director of the Detroit-based United Community Housing Coalition, also wasn’t surprised by the number of renter occupied properties going to auction this year.
“These tenants will have time and the main thing … for many of them probably is understanding their rights,” he said.
The Make It Home program — a partnership among the United Community Housing Coalition, the city of Detroit and Quicken Loans Community Fund — has helped residents, including renters, living in foreclosed homes buy their properties before auction. The program is currently working with roughly 240 properties, Phillips said.
A recent report from the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions initiative found that the Make It Home program helped tenants stay in their homes. Eighty-one percent of participants got a deed to their home or stayed on a land contract agreement, by the end of the program’s first year.
Here’s what renters in foreclosed homes should keep in mind at this stage of the foreclosure process, according to Phillips:
- Keep records of legal occupancy — such as a lease or utility bills — in case the tenant gets accused of being a squatter.
- When a new owner buys the property they are required to give a month’s notice before they file an eviction case in 36th District Court. A court process should follow before a bailiff eviction.
- Residents should be careful about scams. People may approach them and say they are the owner and demand money. Occupants should ask for the deed to the property and call and confirm with the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office at 313-224-5986 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The main thing is, don’t move, don’t leave the house,” Sabree said.
Even if someone buys the property and knocks on a tenant’s door demanding they move, residents should stay put because the buyer has to go through the 36th District Court — if they are in Detroit — to evict someone, he said.
After foreclosure, any existing lease agreement is null because the ownership transfers to the Treasurer’s Office, Sabree said. A new owner does not have to honor a previous lease.
“Don’t give money to anyone unless you’re sure that person is the owner and if the previous landlord comes to you to collect any rent, absolutely don’t give them any money. They don’t own the property anymore,” Sabree said.
If a tenant tries to buy their home at the auction, they run the risk of getting outbid, which is likely, Alsup said.
The good news, he said, is that tax foreclosures overall have not increased dramatically despite the financial hurdles of the pandemic.
“It’s very good overall to see that after two and a half years of the pandemic and the economic shocks associated with it that we have not seen a huge spike in tax foreclosures,” he said.
On the homeowner front, that’s due in part, he said, to programs like the Detroit Tax Relief Fund (which can wipe out back tax debt), a statewide pandemic-era grant program called the Michigan Homeowner Assistance Fund (MIHAF) and more people applying for a property tax exemption.
“It does not mean that all housing stability issues have been solved, but it does mean that there is now time and space to address other issues because tax foreclosure is receding as a threat for homeowners, which is definitely very important progress,” Alsup said.