Volume of abandoned homes 'absolutely terrifying'

Joel Kurth, and Christine MacDonald

Detroit — Detroit has had more homes foreclosed in the past 10 years than the total number of houses in several suburbs — or all of Buffalo, New York.

Old tires pile up on Faust Street. All but seven of 24 homes on the west-side block have been foreclosed in the past 10 years; six of the bungalows were razed last fall.

Since 2005, more than 1-in-3 Detroit properties — 139,699 of 384,672 — have been foreclosed because of mortgage defaults or unpaid taxes, property records show. The vast majority are houses, and the tally is so huge it shocked even those who spent years working on foreclosure in Detroit.

"When you see it on a map, it's absolutely terrifying," said Chris Uhl, a vice president of the Skillman Foundation that is working to prevent foreclosures.

To get a sense of the loss, consider all the houses in Warren, Livonia, Royal Oak, Southfield and Allen Park.

Empty them. The number is still less than all the foreclosures in Detroit.

"Even if you are deeply involved, you can't help but be staggered by these numbers," said Steve Tobocman, a former state representative who served as co-director of the Michigan Foreclosure Task Force.

> Explore a database and map of tax-foreclosed homes in Detroit

"It's not just 140,000 properties. It's people living in those properties. The number of lives affected is just staggering."

The Detroit News compiled its findings using records from CoreLogic and RealtyTrac, real estate tracking firms, and the Wayne County Treasurer's Office, which forecloses on homes after three years of tax nonpayment. The News' analysis is the first to combine both types of foreclosure, giving a better sense of damage that some say is comparable to a natural disaster.

In Detroit, homes lost to foreclosure are often never re-occupied: 76 percent of the 84,000 properties on the city's blight list are foreclosures, according an inventory of housing conditions by the Detroit Blight Task Force.

Taxpayers pay for the damage, from demolition costs and declining property values to diminished quality of life. On the 8200 block of Faust near Joy on the city's west side, city crews last fall razed six bungalows that had been foreclosed since 2005. Much work remains: All but seven of 24 homes on the block have been foreclosed in the past 10 years.

"People come around and see no neighbors, so they steal, rob and strip," said Talise Banks, 30, a single mother of two young boys. "They come by, take out windows, hot water heaters and whatever else from homes. There're just a lot of problems."

When she bought in 2002, all homes on the block were occupied. Her mortgage payment is $900 per month for a home appraised at $5,000. She owes $82,000 on the mortgage for the 900-square-foot home.

Banks said she's lost more in break-ins than her home is worth today: Four TVs, a laptop, a tablet, a digital camera, a lawn mower and more.

By her count, there are more raccoons, 18, in one empty house on the block than there are people. There are about 10 people, including her neighbor, Lem Wade.

"You don't keep anything valuable here," said Wade, who has lived in a rental on Faust for five years. "Young guys are always trying to get in. I'd like to get some expensive stuff, but with no alarm system, I'd be a fool."

More foreclosures are on the way. Wayne County Treasury officials plan to foreclose on another 28,545 city properties for nonpayment of taxes at online auctions this fall. About 10,000 are occupied, and county officials extended the deadline to make payment plans to June 8.

Daren Blomquist, a vice president at RealtyTrac, a California company that tracks real estate, said the double whammy of tax and mortgage foreclosures accelerates the decline of neighborhoods.

Detroit is fourth in mortgage foreclosures over the past 10 years, behind Las Vegas, Phoenix and Chicago. But Detroit had far more tax foreclosures, 110,000, than those cities, and its housing prices have slumped the most: Homes sold for $22,000 on average in the city last fall, down 73 percent from its peak before the housing market crash, RealtyTrac records show.

That is by far the lowest among 50 big cities. Cleveland was second lowest with $66,000. The fall national average for home sale prices was $193,000.

"It's almost unbelievable unless you drive by and see houses selling for $500," Blomquist said. "No matter how you look at the data, Detroit keeps popping up as having the deck stacked against it."

Kurt Metzger, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit and mayor of Pleasant Ridge, analyzed foreclosures for Detroit's Office of Foreclosure Prevention and Response. He said foreclosure "affected everything: housing stock, neighborhoods. It exacerbated crime, blight, the loss of city services and taxable incomes."

Those losses are harder to quantify.

Detroit's population fell by nearly 240,000 residents from 2000 to 2010, to about 700,000. The foreclosure crisis raged for at least five of those years, and Metzger said there's "certainly an argument that many residents were forced out" of the city by foreclosure, but it's impossible to determine.

Declining property values alone cost Detroiters an estimated $1.3 billion in personal wealth in 2012, according to a 2013 report by an anti-foreclosure group, the Alliance for a Just Society.

Add in incalculable costs of arson, blight, crime — as well as social costs — and Tobocman said foreclosure's toll on Detroit rivals that experienced in the 1967 riots. That unrest cost $100 million in property damage — $700 million in today's dollars — and accelerated a population decline that had already begun in Detroit.

"In terms of tax base, destruction to the physical landscape and the number of people disappearing from the city, this (foreclosure crisis) may have been the most devastating," said Tobocman, who lives in southwest Detroit and is director of Global Detroit, a group that works to increase immigration to the city.

Detroit has averaged 15,000 to 25,000 foreclosures a year since 2006. In the late 2000s, the vast majority were mortgage foreclosures. Last year, the vast majority were tax foreclosures.

Either way, the result is often the same: An abandoned building in a city with too many of them.

It's a crisis that quietly unfolds every Thursday in the 13th floor auditorium of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, where sheriff's officials auction bank-foreclosed properties.

Late last year, Renee Jester attended the sale and wondered if she'd be homeless by the end of it.

She's rented a home on Mansfield near Outer Drive on the west side since February 2014. The home's owners stopped paying the mortgage, owing Fidelity Bank $27,591 and leading to a foreclosure notice.

Detroit has averaged up to 25,000 foreclosures a year since 2008. Every Thursday, sheriff's officials auction off the properties  at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

"I'm hysterical. I don't know what to do —

if I'm going to need to find somewhere else or what," Jester said. "I'm a nervous wreck."

By law, bidders have to pay $1 more than is owed or the property reverts to the lender. Mortgage holders then have six months to work out a deal.

Jester rocked in her seat during the auction. Three Detroit homes sold. All fetched less than $1,000, including a bungalow on Grandville in northwest Detroit that sold for $470. In November 2008, at the dawn of the meltdown, the same house sold for $86,667, property records show.

The deputy read Jester's address. No bids. She wouldn't lose the home that day.

"Thank God," Jester said, as her hands shook and held a foreclosure notice.

The reprieve is temporary.

The so-called redemption period ends in late June, when the bank can take possession of the home and evict Jester.


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By the numbers

36 percent of all Detroit properties went through foreclosure from 2005 to 2014.

139,699 total homes foreclosed.

56 percent of all mortgage foreclosures are blighted, need to be demolished or have been foreclosed again for nonpayment of taxes.

76 percent of the 84,000 properties on the city's blight list are foreclosures.