Wayne County to resume foreclosure process this year, offers new assistance program

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In this 2017 photo, residents of a home protest Wayne County's Tax Foreclosure Auction. The auction did not take place in 2020 due to the pandemic. The foreclosure process will likely resume in 2021, according to Wayne County. (Detroit Free Press photo by Junfu Han)

The Wayne County Treasurer’s Office is offering new ways to pay down back tax debt, and expects to resume the tax foreclosure process this year.

Prompted by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, the office expanded its existing hardship program — which temporarily withholds foreclosures for homeowners facing financial difficulties — to now include commercial businesses and certain landlords.

Meanwhile, the tax foreclosure process will resume this year, Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree said. Last year, the pandemic led to a moratorium on foreclosures. Sabree’s office does not anticipate extending the moratorium through this year.

Commercial property owners and landlords with up to five occupied rental properties can now apply for new payment plans giving them through March 2022 to bring down their delinquent taxes, Sabree said.

The program gives eligible landlords and businesses time to pay off back tax debt but doesn’t bring down the interest rate, which is 18% a year, Sabree said. It allows them to put down 25% at first and then pay off the rest of their balance through March of next year.

“This will make it a little easier for them to pay, and to keep their properties out of foreclosure,” Sabree said.

Michele Oberholtzer, director of tax foreclosure prevention at United Community Housing Coalition, said “there’s a huge need for intervention” and is glad to see a more “targeted approach.”

“As long as these are not landlords who owed taxes back in 2012 and have been gaming the system, if they truly only owe back to 2018. … If it is the first time that they’re subject to foreclosure, I think it’s reasonable that there may be some discretion given,” she said.

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Margaret Dewar, a University of Michigan professor who studies foreclosures, said the plan can give landlords more time to work with their tenants to access rental assistance from federal relief funds.

“Housing analysts across the country point to small, ‘mom-and-pop’ landlords as most vulnerable to going out of business when their tenants cannot pay rent. As a group, they also own a major share of rental properties,” she wrote in an email.

A separate existing program for eligible non-owner-occupied properties, such as landlords and businesses, gives people through September to pay off back tax debt. The later people apply for that program, the higher the down payment, Sabree said.

Before the changes to include commercial businesses and certain landlords in Wayne County’s hardship policy, the program covered homeowners under something called the Distressed Owner Occupant Extension (DOOE), which holds off on property foreclosures but doesn’t include a payment plan or ways to bring down delinquent taxes. Interest accrues each month at 1.5%.

The DOOE can act as a “holding pattern” through March 2022 on foreclosure for homeowners who haven’t applied for the county’s Pay As You Stay (PAYS) program — which reduces back tax debt — or who have a pending application for that program, Sabree said.

The county increased the maximum income threshold to qualifyfor the DOOE program to $20,700 for a family of two, from a previous limit of $17,240, matching the city of Detroit’s 2020 household income guidelines.

Foreclosure process to resume in 2021 

Sabree said his office will resume the tax foreclosure process this year, including the annual tax foreclosure auction which usually takes place in the fall.

“There will be foreclosures this year, because there are a number of properties that should be foreclosed, blighted properties,” he said. “Our goal is to keep the occupied properties out of foreclosure, so people don’t actually lose their residence.”

The treasurer’s office in 2020 issued a moratorium on property foreclosures because of the pandemic. As a result, the foreclosure auction last year was suspended. Sabree said he does not anticipate having to ask the Wayne County 3rd Circuit Court for permission to issue another moratorium, because “we have enough tools to keep people out of foreclosure.”

“We don’t anticipate that we’ll have to go to court again and ask, but that’s always an option,” he said.

Housing advocates in October urged Sabree to extend the moratorium on property foreclosures through this year and stop foreclosing on any Detroit owner-occupied homes starting in 2022.

“If we have a moratorium, we’re bailing out landlords or dead people … so it seems like clemency, but it’s not always what’s best for the resident or the home or the city,” Oberholtzer said Monday. “…What we really need is time and resources to connect those solutions to everyone who needs them.”

Oberholtzer said while she’s not advocating for occupied homes to go up for auction, the foreclosure process itself can lead to the Make it Home program — an initiative between UCHC, the city of Detroit and the Quicken Loans Community Fund — where the city can pick up occupied foreclosed homes before the auction.

“We do want that tool,” she said.

When Sabree announced the moratorium last March, there were about 10,000 Wayne County properties, including about 3,200 occupied homes, facing foreclosure, according to his office at the time. The final number of properties headed to the foreclosure auction this year will be available in April and June, Sabree said last week.

Here’s more information on Wayne County’s expanded payment plan: 

  • Who is eligible? Commercial property owners applying for the hardship policy must meet requirements such as having an annual revenue of less than $7 million and fewer than 500 employees. Residential landlords with up to five properties must demonstrate that the COVID-19 eviction moratorium had a significant impact on their ability to pay taxes.
  • How to apply: They deadline for landlords and business owners to apply for the payment plan is March 15. Application materials can be found online at the www.waynecounty.com/elected/treasurer/ under “payment plan information.” Applications can be returned to the treasurer’s office: Taxpayer Assistance Department, 400 Monroe St., 5th Floor, Detroit, MI 48226. For further information, people can call the treasurer’s office at 313-224-5990 or e-mail wctopaymentplans@waynecounty.com.
  • For homeowners interested in DOOE: The deadline for the Distressed Owner Occupant Extension (DOOE) application is March 11. Homeowners must show documented proof of financial hardship. That application can also be returned to the Taxpayer Assistance Department.

Free Press staff writer Christine MacDonald contributed to this report. 

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

Contact Nushrat: nrahman@freepress.com; 313-348-7558. Follow her on Twitter: @NushratR. Sign up for Bridge Detroit’s newsletterBecome a  Free Press subscriber. 

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