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Detroit has the fewest occupied homes heading to its tax auction since before the Great Recession, officials say.

This year, about 700 owner occupied homes in Detroit are at-risk, a decline from a high of more than 6,400 in 2015, Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree said at a Friday press conference, highlighting the city's outreach efforts to residents.

"These efforts have worked," Sabree said. "We knocked on over 5,200 doors since March."

The foreclosure crisis has had a deep effect on Detroit, which remains the nation's poorest big city and flipped from majority homeowner to 54 percent renter. The percentage of African-Americans who own their own homes dropped in Michigan more than any other state, down to 40 percent from just over half in 2000.

The county seized about 100,000 Detroit properties for unpaid property taxes from 2011 through 2015, about a quarter of all parcels, researchers have found. 

"We have no prospect of increasing the population of this community if we keep losing people to foreclosure," said Mayor Mike Duggan on Friday, praising efforts to reduce foreclosures.

There's still hope for many of the 700 homes believed to be occupied under a new program that would let them buy their foreclosures back with the help of the city and the nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition. To qualify, owners need to meet income requirements and contact the group as soon as possible. Those interested should go to the group's offices at 2727 Second in Detroit. 

The buyback program is a part of a recent ACLU of Michigan settlement of its 2016 lawsuit against Detroit that includes a deal to save potentially thousands of foreclosed homes over the next three years by selling them back to low-income owners for $1,000.

Under the plan, a group of homes headed to this year's fall tax auction will instead be bought by the city and sold to owner-occupants who can prove they qualify for the city's poverty tax exemption, which lowers or eliminates tax bills.

The ACLU sued the city in Wayne County Circuit Court two years ago over how it administered the state-mandated property tax break for the poor, arguing it was inaccessible to the vast majority of homeowners who were needlessly losing their homes to foreclosure

UCHC and the city are expanding a separate program funded this year with the help of Quicken Loans to buy foreclosed rentals and sell them to tenants. The nonprofit did that with 80 homes last year and hopes to expand with several hundred this year, with the city's help.

There are another 800 occupied homes in foreclosure now occupied by renters, officials said. 

Rachel Sims, her husband Alfonzo and two daughters Angel, 13, and Laila, 10, have been renting a home that was foreclosed upon after their landlord stopped paying taxes. Now the 38-year-old Detroiter is about to become a first-time home buyer, thanks to the program. 

"This is our baby," Sims said of the three-bedroom brick home on the city's west side. "As soon as we get the deed I'm going to plan a housewarming party."

Sims said her family is grateful for the stability the program would offer.

The total number of properties headed to the tax auction as of July is 4,676, officials said. That compares to a high of 24,793 in fall 2015. 

There are about 23,000 properties on payment plans to avoid foreclosure, Sabree said.

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