Eastside Community Network (ECN) Director of Sustainable Housing Ian McCain, 28, of Eastpointe, left, and Volunteer Willie Morgan, of Oak Park, right, walk up to what looks like an abandoned home to drop off a packet of information to help them save their home from property tax foreclosure on Saturday, March 19, 2022. Property tax foreclosures are resuming in Wayne County after March 31. There's been a moratorium on occupied homes for the past two years. Nonprofit groups like ECN are working with the Wayne County Treasurer's Office to locate those homes marked for foreclosure. (Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press)

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. 

This story also appeared in Detroit Free Press

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.

Alex Alsup, vice president of research and development at Regrid, a parcel data technology company, looked at tax foreclosures in Detroit from 2014 and 2022 and found that while foreclosures on owner occupied homes remained the same as right before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of renter-occupied foreclosures went up. Provided by Alex Alsup.

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 wctauction@waynecounty.com. 

“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. 

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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8 Comments

  1. Yes I see how unfair it’s for people on a fixed income ,landlords are so greedy for money and how high it is just to rent it’s so unfair to us on disability social security income

  2. The mayor is not doing en enough for us,on a limited income. Shame on you people so greedy and ain’t going to take a penny with you when you leave Earth. Shame on you. This world is gone to the dogs

  3. I liked what Sabree said, “The main things is don’t move, don’t leave the house.” If I may add, keep receipts, and pictures of home improvements, and rehab work done as a renter and discuss them with the new owner. Also, place your rent in an escrow account, the owner may offer a land contract deal.

  4. Ppl don’t let someone claiming to own your house now coming in with a gun trying to kick u out regardless if ur squatting or not go court at 36th district n plead ur case. N In them 30 days gut that house furnace hot water tank the tub the toilet aluminum sididing any copper pipes door knows are brass kit hen sink ur losing ur home n I’d assume u put work into make it unliveable n try n get cash for keys $1000 get all this extraction down give them the keys clearly take ur front doors there urs. They don’t need that insulation probably got asbestos in it. Of u cut carpet properly reuse it exhaust fans air ducts all yours. Js anything precious metals. Get ur $ out wat u spent str8 to pro greens or renew recycling good luck to all my squater out there yall my ppl

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