Editorial: Give Wayne homeowners benefit of doubt

The Detroit News

Wayne County has been tackling its foreclosure problem for the past several years, and spending millions of dollars to do so. But lawsuits filed by families who are losing their homes to foreclosure claim the county hasn’t given them appropriate notice before grabbing their properties for resale.

The county insists it follows the appropriate legal framework. But clearly issues with the foreclosure process exist, and it appears residents’ rights to due process are sometimes being ignored. The county and the state must clarify the foreclosure process — and make sure their offices are appropriately staffed to handle however many of them occur. Michigan residents shouldn’t have to fear they might unknowingly be kicked out of their homes.

The Wayne County Treasurer’s Office has essentially acknowledged its system is flawed. Eric Sabree, formerly deputy treasurer and just-named treasurer this week, said his office has not always received proof from the post office that someone in a foreclosed home signed for a letter or that delivery was attempted.

About 7 percent of the 213,000 certified letters mailed in late 2015 did not have delivery confirmation, according to the treasurer’s office. And that’s just a sampling of the 100,000 homes that have been foreclosed in Wayne County over the past decade.

There certainly seems to be an issue with post office delivery, and there might be issues with the two companies the county contracts to handle most of the foreclosure notifications.

The Detroit News obtained and studied records of certified mailings, sampling 1,000 of the 333,000 sent by one of the companies, Wolverine Solutions, in 2014. It found more than half are still listed by the post office as “in transit.”

That lends credibility to the claims in several lawsuits and, if true, is a serious breach of due process rights. The county claims even if the required certified mail isn’t delivered, homeowners should know through other means that their property is threatened.

But the county doesn’t have the right to ignore parts of the law when inconvenient, and it can’t dictate how residents should respond to bureaucratic failures. Its job is to follow the foreclosure process and give homeowners every available opportunity to stay in their homes.

Residents claim they received differing information from different county staff members about when and how they could pay outstanding taxes. And companies that handle notifications offered pictures of their notifications on residents’ homes, which presumes the homeowners are aware of coming foreclosure.

But there are a host of explanations for why they may not have seen a piece of paper stuck to their door. Verbal or written confirmation that homeowners are aware they’re being foreclosed is preferred.

Residents who don’t pay property taxes should be concerned their homes will be foreclosed. These problems could be avoided altogether by doing so. But that doesn’t lift the burden on the county to properly notify these residents their properties are going to be taken from them, and to give them a fair chance to stay in their homes.