Owners flock to Cobo to save homes
Detroit — More than 950 people facing tax foreclosure descended on Cobo Center on Thursday to meet with Wayne County officials in hopes of saving their homes.
Among them was 64-year-old Pamela Hyde. She's owned her tan aluminum sided bungalow on the east side for 35 years, raised her son there and paid her mortgage. But she said a series of illnesses and her small pension has made it difficult to chip away at her $4,400 in tax debt.
"I can't afford to lose my home," said Hyde, who waited with hundreds of others for her number to be called to speak with county officials. "There is not a lot of wiggle room. The utilities are sky high. ... I am in need of help. It's my home."
Wayne County officials are pursuing foreclosure on a record number of properties this year. Some have worked out payment plans, but 56,000 properties in Detroit still face foreclosure, said Chief Deputy David Szymanski. Another 4,000 homeowners elsewhere in Wayne County also are set to be foreclosed because of at least three years' of nonpayment of taxes.
The Cobo sessions continue weekdays through next week. They're another chance to meet with county officials to enter payment plans or learn about other relief programs. Nonprofits are also in attendance to provide legal counseling and other help negotiating out of foreclosure.
Recent legislation signed by Gov. Rick Snyder allow the treasurer to lower interest on debt from 18 percent to 6 percent for many homeowners. In many instances, homeowners can have taxes capped at a quarter of the market value of the home.
"These new programs are breathtaking in the ways they are able to help out," Szymanski said. "We've never had these types of options."
On Thursday, a whole section of chairs in Cobo was reserved for renters living in homes owned by delinquent landlords. Many were hoping to find a way to purchase the homes themselves.
Sharon Searcy hasn't heard from her landlords for months and hasn't paid rent for more than a year. She's hoping she can find a way to purchase the home and stay there with her two teenage boys.
"I want to stay in the home," Searcy said. "If I could just come up with the payments I could buy it and live there."
Her options are limited and she and other renters typically have to try and bid on the houses they live in at auction this fall. The home has $4,700 in tax debt that Searcy said she doesn't have.
One reason for the increase in at-risk property owners is because of a policy shift by county Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz, who decided this year 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.
"Until you tell people we could take their property, the vast majority hope it will go away," Szymanski said.
At least 18,000 Detroit properties had delinquent taxes dating to 2010 or earlier, according to county data as of this fall.
In a move to stem the tide of foreclosures, Mayor Mike Duggan announced Wednesday that residential property assessments citywide will decline 5-20 percent, the second consecutive year he's cut taxes. Critics argue the city's unrealistic assessments contributed to the foreclosure crisis.