Opinion: Supreme Court should protect against surprise foreclosures

Jim Runestad

Imagine that one day you’re told the government is going to foreclose on your family’s home. Not only that, but they’re going to sell your home at auction and pocket every penny they make — and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

The home you live in, the home you’ve poured your personal savings into, is gone, and you have nothing to show for it.

This Aug. 14, 2007, file photo shows a sign of a house under foreclosure in Antioch, Calif. As home values plummeted after the housing bubble burst in 2007, many borrowers with exotic types of loans were stuck, unable to refinance as lenders began to tighten their lending criteria. That set the stage for cascading mortgage defaults.

The county treasurer’s office tells you this is happening because somewhere along the way you were assessed a minor tax fee, and you didn’t quite pay it correctly.

They didn’t tell you about this fee before? Doesn’t matter.

You accidentally paid on the current tax bill instead of a past bill? Doesn’t matter.

A situation like this seems almost unimaginable in America in the year 2019. That the government can act like a vulture and swoop in to take your property is beyond the pale of belief. Even worse, the fact that your county government can turn around and sell your home and put that money into its own budget is just flat wrong.

Unfortunately for many in our communities, this is a very real situation. The Michigan Supreme Court recently heard real-life stories reflecting this problem, such as that of Erica Perez and her father, who lost their home over a $144 tax debt — a debt they didn’t know about until it was too late. Another account involved a gentleman named Uri Rafaeli, who lost his home because he mistakenly underpaid his property taxes by $8.41.

Uri Rafaeli

These are not isolated events; this is happening all over the state of Michigan.

This is not an issue of people trying to get away with not paying their taxes. These are the kind of easy-to-fix situations that inevitably pop up in the busy lives of families like yours and mine. Homes are being foreclosed upon due to simple mistakes like someone inheriting a home and not being up to date on the associated tax burden; someone paying on a current amount instead of paying toward a past amount due; or someone missing a tax notice because they were in the hospital or because the county mailed the notice to the wrong address.

This is an issue of local government stepping over the line to help pad the county coffers. And it’s also yet another example of government singling out the most vulnerable among us — the poor, the elderly, those with chronic illnesses or those who may not speak English.

Thankfully, there is hope, because our state Supreme Court will weigh in on the case of Uri Rafaeli. I’m confident the justices of the court will do the right thing and fix the mess that’s been created and put in front of them.

No matter what they decide to do, we ought to make sure something like this does not happen again. We must look out for the most vulnerable, and that means helping folks stay in their homes.

Local property tax notices need to be clearer, so people can understand them. Government collection practices must be more transparent and easier to follow. The time period for redeeming one’s property should be extended in the case of minor amounts owed.

And if a home is eventually foreclosed upon and sold, at least some of that money should be returned to the owner. That money does not belong to the government — it belongs to the homeowner.

In the meantime, we can hope that the Supreme Court will do the right thing, which is to provide justice to Rafaeli and to uphold our fundamental property rights. To do otherwise would undermine public faith in our institutions of justice.

State Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, represents Michigan’s 15th District.