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Detroit — Deon Harris knew that he was in danger of losing his west-side home after his former landlord failed to pay property taxes.

While checking on the back taxes last year, Harris learned he qualified for the Detroit Land Bank’s Occupied Buy Back program, which gives occupants a chance to remain in their homes.

A year later, Harris was among 50 program participants on Tuesday to receive deeds to their homes.

“I’m a Detroiter now,” said Harris, 44. “A full resident, a homeowner and it feels great.”

Mayor Mike Duggan kicked off the ceremony Tuesday by presenting deeds to three of the latest 50 homeowners in the yearlong program that has seen nearly 300 graduates in the past year. The land bank owns about 25,000 houses with 3,500 that are occupied, he said. 

“You did the hard work and today the land bank is going to own 50 fewer houses and you’re going to own 50 more houses, which is a great thing,” Duggan said.

To qualify for the program, a Detroit resident has to have lost their home to foreclosure or be a tenant whose landlord has lost to foreclosure a home that is in the land bank's inventory.

During the course of a year, the potential homeowners have to attend homeownership and financial counseling courses, pay $1,000 and save $100 a month toward property taxes. Participants also have to stay current on tax payments and water bills. When a participant completes the program, the homes are removed from escrow and they receive the deed.

“We need to keep people in their homes," Duggan said. "We don’t want to push people out and have to get somebody else to come in."

The path to home ownership was years in the making for Rebecca Fritz, 39. The mother of five previously squatted in her west side home after escaping from a domestic violence relationship in 2013 and living in her van with her children, now ages 4 to 19. 

"We were literally on the verge of freezing to death in my van," she said. "So I went into a house that was wide open, and I secured it, and I started fixing it up, cleaning it up. ... It's taken four and a half years to finally get the deed to the property, and I could not be happier."

Fritz said she's replaced some windows and plumbing in her 1,900-square foot home, as well as improved the yard. Now she has plans to make the house self-sustaining with solar panels, rainwater collection and composting toilets.

Harris said he plans to surprise his son, Deon Harris, Jr., 20, who knew he was buying their duplex but didn't know when. He said his son purchased a safe for him to store the deed.

"Today is the big day," he said.

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

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