Evictions loom as suburbs buy tax-foreclosed homes

Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News
  • Taylor, Dearborn, Lincoln Park and Garden City bought homes before they were offered at auction
  • Developer pledges to invest in homes to fix blight
  • Former homeowners want more time to save properties

Wayne County suburbs increasingly are buying tax-foreclosed homes and selling them to developers who flip them for profits, prompting criticism that city officials are driving residents from their homes.

In Lincoln Park, several former owners still living in their homes are pleading with city officials to stop the developers from evicting them. The city bought 90 tax-foreclosed homes this summer from the county treasurer before they could be sold at an annual auction open to the public.

The city’s goal was to stop blight and prevent absentee landlords from purchasing the homes. But former owners including Marvin Barski Jr. said they should have another chance to save their homes. He lost a brick ranch that his family has owned for 60 years because of an unpaid $1,200 bill.

He just recently got an eviction notice from the developer, JSR Funding, based in Warren.

“It has made me so sick,” said Barski, 58, an aircraft mechanic. “This house means everything to me. I grew up in this house. ... I don’t know where I will go.”

Similar stories are echoing throughout the county, as suburbs are taking advantage of a county policy that allows municipalities to buy properties before the online auction. Taylor purchased 106 properties, while Redford Township took 76, Dearborn, 35, and Garden City, 28.

After pleas to the City Council, Dearborn recently resold eight occupied tax-foreclosed homes to former owners with restrictions they maintain them, a city spokeswoman said.

Barski could have avoided foreclosure. By law, homes are foreclosed after taxes go unpaid for three years.

Barski missed several deadlines to make payments on 2012 taxes, but was current on 2013-2015 bills. He said he was confused, had surgery and didn’t realize paying the oldest debt would prevent foreclosure.

“I feel dumb, gullible and stupid,” said Barski.

Lincoln Park Emergency Manager Brad Coulter said he can’t help Barski or other homeowners who haven’t paid their tax bills because the city can’t go back on the contract with the developer, which was competitively bid.

“If they had gone through the tax auction, they’d be going through the same system,” Coulter said of the former homeowners. “We are in this tough spot of ‘Where have you been for the last six months?’”

“We could have helped point you toward assistance.”The city sold the 90 homes to JSR for the $836,000 in back taxes owed. That’s the amount Lincoln Park paid the county for the homes.

JSR paid the current summer taxes and water bills and will invest at least $15,000 per house rehabbing them. The company keeps any profit from the sale.

“The city’s housing stock is significantly improved and taxable values are increased,” Jim Budziak of JSR wrote in an email to The News. “Had the city not exercised its right of first refusal, the properties would have been sold at the Wayne County auction and the city would be subject to the whims of individual/investor auction purchasers.”

Garden City has a similar deal with JSR to rehab 17 homes. Mayor Randy Walker said he feels sympathy for homeowners but the program will help bring new residents in.

“We have to bring property values back up,” Walker said. “I don’t buy into these people saying they had no idea (about the foreclosure). ... There is a consequence for everything.”

Barski’s attorney Tarek Baydoun argues the developer’s contract should be voided because it doesn’t meet the law’s requirement that there be a “public purpose” when the city buys an owner-occupied tax foreclosure.

“That’s not good for the city to take houses from people who have equity in their houses,” said Baydoun, who also has clients in Garden City.

In Redford Township, Michael Dennis, the director of the community development department, said developers have helped displaced homeowners find new homes.

Brandy Gutierrez is waiting to see if JSR follows through evicting her from her Lincoln Park home. She said her estranged husband never told her he wasn’t paying the taxes until the unpaid bill accumulated to nearly $12,000. She was able to borrow enough to pay about $8,000 in December and got on a payment plan.

County officials say she didn’t make those payments and Lincoln Park bought the home in July. Gutierrez said county staffers told her she had until October to pay and went to the city that month with a $4,000 cashier’s check hoping to save it.

She hasn’t told her two kids, 10 and 12, that they might soon lose the home.

“I am afraid tomorrow they could throw me out,” Gutierrez said. “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat.”