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Detroit assessor's plan to save some from tax foreclosure stalls at county treasurer's office

Oct 31, 2017

An effort to help some Wayne County residents from losing their homes to tax foreclosure seems to have stalled. Until the last minute, low-income property owners were being encouraged to apply for tax exemptions, with the hope of preventing their homes from being sold at Wayne County’s annual auction of tax-foreclosed properties.

Detroit City assessor Alvin Horhn’s office promoted the idea that some low-income homeowners might be able to avoid tax foreclosure this year if they hurried to apply for a tax exemption.

Even though the auction wrapped up last week, there had been some hope. If homeowners qualified for an exemption, it was hoped they might be able to keep from losing their house.  

Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree seemingly dealt a death-blow to that plan when he reportedly told the Detroit Free Press over the weekend that that deeds to homes sold at the first round of the auction had already been processed.

Sabree said he hadn’t been informed about Horhn’s plan.  

Reached by phone Monday, Sabree said he “didn’t want to comment” on whether some deeds have already been processed.

A delay in processing deeds sold at auction could have given low-income homeowners who applied and qualified for tax-exemptions a chance to keep their homes.

"I knew when we proposed this idea that it was a very long shot given the timing so close to the end of the second auction,” Horhn said in a statement. “I accept the treasurer’s decision that it was too late for this year. We look forward to continuing to work with the treasurer’s office to expand efforts to help residents get the support they need to avoid foreclosure, including poverty tax exemptions.”

A spokesman for Hohrn said he considered the matter over with, and declined an interview to discuss the matter further.

Michele Oberholtzer is the coordinator of the tax foreclosure prevention program at the non-profit United Community Housing Coalition. She says she was helping people apply for tax exemptions even though she knew, through conversations with Detroit city officials, that the effort plan wasn’t a concrete deal.

“We had to act as though it were going to happen, understanding that it wasn’t certain. But we couldn’t allow the opportunity to pass us by … when there was a chance that people could save their homes,” Oberholtzer said.

Oberholtzer said she helped roughly 40 people apply for tax exemptions up through the end of the auction. She said this year’s auction was particularly devastating to her clients. She says of 140 homes owned by her clients, 100 were sold at auction.

“[That] is the lowest ratio that we’ve ever had, and that speaks to the investment and the speculation in real estate in Detroit and the auction in particular that we’re seeing,” Oberholtzer said. “We were very hopeful about this program as a respite and unfortunately it doesn’t look like it will be.”

She says there are numerous steps that governments at all levels, city county and state, could take to help low-income homeowners struggling with property taxes, and avoid future foreclosures.

“Government has the power to change government foreclosure,” she said.

Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

Wayne County put more than 6,000 properties up for auction this year. That’s significantly fewer than in recent years.

Nearly 30,000 properties were withdrawn from the foreclosure process before the auction this year. But critics say most of those people were likely put on payment plans they can’t afford — and the number going to auction is still far too high. Criticisms that a spokesman for Sabree has previously said are unfair