3 council members, activists rally against foreclosures

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Detroit — Dozens rallied Wednesday alongside three Detroit City Council members to demand that federal dollars be redirected from blight busting to foreclosure prevention programs.

“We must demand that any further ‘hardest hit’ funds be programed for foreclosure prevention,” said Councilwoman Mary Sheffield, referring to federal dollars allocated to Detroit residents by the Step Forward program.

“(Those funds) could also be used for home repairs, to help people stay in their homes,” said Councilwoman Raquel Catstañeda-Lòpez, who attended along with council member Gabe Leland and activists from the Moratorium Now Coalition and the ACLU.

Other activists said federal dollars should go toward paying off tax and water bills as well.

The rally came under the shadow of the year’s last foreclosure auction later this month, which protesters said will include thousands of owner-occupied homes.

“We don’t want owner-occupied houses going to auction,” Sheffield said, who urged the city to pull owner-occupied homes from the auction block to allow residents time to catch up on debts with help from Step Forward’s ‘hardest hit’ funds.

Catstañeda-Lòpez said the city’s focus on newcomers often leaves behind longtime residents.

“We concentrate so much on bringing new people to the city that we forget about retaining residents,” she said. “These are people who have dedicated their whole lives to Detroit.”

Catstañeda-Lòpez said she has approached city leaders with a request regarding water shut-offs: Halt any action in homes where the elderly, children and/or disabled reside.

“I was told that’s not something the administration wants to pursue,” Catstañeda-Lòpez said as people in the crowd booed.

A few speakers delivered sermon-like speeches.

“This is an avoidable crisis, at least in the short term,” said Jerry Goldberg, organizer and attorney with the Moratorium Now Coalition. “The money’s there, (the government needs to) use it to keep people in their homes, not to tear them down.”

Goldberg also claimed the funds were raised through Detroiters’ taxes.

“That’s no welfare,” he said. “That’s our money.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has filed a lawsuit to halt some Detroit foreclosures, according to lawyer Michael Steinberg.

Residents either were eligible for a poverty tax exemption or their homes were assessed at over market value, pushing their taxes too high, he said.

“Owner occupied homes are going into foreclosure for taxes they shouldn’t have to pay,” Steinberg said.

Leland spoke about a resident he called “Ms. Lee,” using her story as an example of how quick a owner-occupied home can be foreclosed and resold. The woman was told by a man knocking at her door that he was the home’s new owner, and that she owed $600 in rent within a few days, according to Leland.

“This fight today is for Ms. Lee,” the council member said. “There are a lot of Ms. Lees out here.”

Although the rally was held on the doorstep of the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office, Catstañeda-Lòpez emphasized a successful partnership with Treasurer Eric Sabree.

“He knew we were going to be here, and I have a very good working relationship with him,” Catstañeda-Lòpez said. “I think he’s done more to help prevent foreclosure than previous treasurers.”

Sabree’s efforts have included sending teams door-to-door, warning residents of potential foreclosure, Catstañeda-Lòpez said.

“Today is really to raise awareness,” she said.

Sabree responded with a statement highlighting his office’s efforts to reduce foreclosures.

“We are very serious about this mission and have established payment programs and the Interest Reduction Agreements that help home owners in arrears,” Sabree said. “Our team has engaged in unprecedented outreach efforts that have resulted in a 46 percent reduction in foreclosures from last year. I am working with my staff to better serve taxpayers at every level and in every way possible.”

But taxes must be collected and foreclosure auctions must continue as scheduled, he added.

“We absolutely support the right to protest. However, it is our mission to collect property taxes on behalf of the county and municipalities within Wayne County. We are doing this with greater efficiency than ever and are utilizing new technologies to make payments easier for tax payers and to get people the information they need,” he said. “We are mandated by State law to collect delinquent taxes and foreclose on properties should we be unable to do so. We are also to hold a public auction to sell foreclosed properties. Halting or delaying the auctions could cause additional hardships to major institutions in Detroit and people relying on them.”

The Detroit auctions fund numerous area institutions, Sabree said, including the city itself, its libraries, Wayne County Community College, Detroit Public Schools, the jails, parks, Detroit Institute of Arts and the zoo.

hfournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4616

@HollyPFournier