Editorial: Tackle foreclosures in Wayne County

The Detroit News

Wayne County continues to work its way through the mortgage foreclosure crisis, with another 70,000 homeowners facing the loss of their houses this year. And while the county says it wants to help residents stay in their homes, it is being sued by a group of families who charge the treasurer’s office did not properly notify them that their properties were at risk.

Those families contend their homes were illegally taken by the county and sold to developers.

The case highlights the importance of clear communication with homeowners who are delinquent on their tax bills.

Certainly, homeowners have a responsibility to stay current on their taxes, or to notify the county if they are having financial troubles. Payment plans and other assistance are available to avoid foreclosure.

But the lawsuit claims the treasurer’s office failed to send out foreclosure notices in a timely fashion, and that homeowners were never personally notified of pending foreclosures on their homes. It also says more than 1,000 property owners may have had their property illegally taken by the county.

Newly appointed Treasurer Richard Hathaway must make it his first priority to determine whether the county’s notification process is adequate.

The state has the first option to buy foreclosed property. Next in line are municipalities and then the county, before the homes go to public auction. If the property isn’t purchased, residents have another shot at working out a payment plan.

Distressed homeowners have access to low-interest payment agreements to help them clear away back taxes, as well as to several other programs offering a variety of options for paying their obligations. The goal should always be avoiding foreclosure and tax sales.

“Foreclosures are the big focus,” Hathaway said when he was selected. “We want to try to keep people in their homes. We’re going to see if we can help them.”

He also promised to provide more neighborhood outlets for paying taxes, rather than requiring tax delinquents to come downtown.

Last winter, treasury officers set up at at Cobo Center for a week to help residents address their specific situations and create individual payment plans. That should become an annual event.

It’s in Wayne County’s best interest to keep its homes occupied by taxpaying residents. Where there are homeowners who are interested and able to work with payment plans, the county should do everything it can to assist them.

If 70,000 Wayne County homes actually go into foreclosure this year, it will be a tragic failure on the part of county officials.

With proper notification and aggressive efforts to move financially troubled residents into assistance plans, there’s no reason tragedy has to unfold.