Detroit – — Wayne County has begun tax foreclosure proceedings on nearly 75,000 properties, a record number that includes thousands of delinquent accounts that officials have ignored for years.
Treasury workers last month began posting notices on the properties that the county plans to auction in fall 2015 if owners don't pay taxes or agree to payment plans. In Detroit alone, 62,000 properties owing $326.4 million in taxes, interest and fees are set to be foreclosed.
More than half of those Detroit homes — 37,000 — are occupied, according to Motor City Mapping data analyzed by Loveland Technologies. That has folks such as Sharon Weatherly fearing she eventually could be out on the street.
"It's just heartbreaking ... to think they may snatch my house because I got a little behind," said the single mother on disability who uses a wheelchair. She faces foreclosure over the $3,700 she owes.
"I need to take care of this," Weatherly said. "It's not something I am ignoring, but in life, comes hardship."
Countywide, tax foreclosures are up 34 percent from 56,000 last year. The increase is largely because of a policy shift by county Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz, who has decided to foreclose on all properties that are at least three years' late in taxes.
By law, those properties are supposed to be foreclosed. But since 2005, Wojtowicz has not taken action on properties with smaller tax bills — $1,500 to $1,700 per year — because he said he lacked the staff to handle that many. Doing so, though, allowed some properties' bills to accumulate to several thousand dollars because the treasurer looked only at the amount of annual tax bills.
That's why owners such as Weatherly are just now getting foreclosure notices despite being more than three years behind on taxes. At least 18,000 affected Detroit properties have delinquent taxes dating to 2010 or earlier, according to county data.
"The earlier we get to people, the more likely we will be successful (in getting them in a payment plan)," said Chief Deputy Treasurer David Szymanski. "We aren't doing this to be mean. We are doing this to be helpful."
Szymanski said the majority of delinquent properties they've bypassed before are blighted or vacant lots. He said putting the occupied properties into foreclosure will force people to deal with the debt while help is still available: The state's Step Forward Michigan program is expected to have funding through the end of 2016 to help struggling homeowners pay tax bills.
Mayor Mike Duggan on Friday said he is working with Wojtowicz and legislators to push policy changes that will "head off large chunks of foreclosures."
He wouldn't comment on specifics but said he hopes to have measures approved in Lansing by the end of the year.
"We are deeply involved in strategies to address all of this," Duggan said. "Our primary goal is to keep people in their homes."
The treasurer is required to charge up to 18 percent interest on the tax debt. Nearly $100 million of the $326.4 million Detroit debt is interest, other fees or unpaid water bills. A measure has passed in the House to let the treasurer lower the interest rate but hasn't been taken up in the Senate, Szymanski said.
Typically most tax delinquent owners facing foreclosure enter payment plans. Of the 56,000 properties that faced foreclosure last year, the treasurer took about 22,000 to the tax auction.
Even so, housing advocate Ted Phillips said he fears a massive effort is required to save the houses of homeowners at risk.
"We've got to have a backup plan if we get to July and there are 35,000 headed to the auction," said Phillips, executive director of the nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition.