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Editorial: Help more Detroiters stay in their homes

The Detroit News

As Detroit continues to fight blight caused by foreclosure, helping to keep its poorest residents in their homes is a worthy goal. To this end, city and county officials are backing a new proposal that would offer homeowners struggling with tax bills some relief. That seems a fair exchange.

Qualifying recipients for the “Pay as You Stay” program would see interest and fees wiped out, and the rest of the debt would be capped at 10% of the home’s taxable value — or limited to back taxes, whichever is less. Homeowners would then have three years to pay their bill. 

State Rep. Wendell Byrd, D-Detroit, center, said he intends to introduce the property tax debt relief plan in the state Legislature.

The Legislature would have to approve the program, and state Rep. Wendell Byrd, D-Detroit, is already on the case.

“It won’t save everybody,” Byrd says, “but it’s going to help people.” 

More:Thousands of poor Detroit homeowners could get tax relief under plan

Detroit is still the nation’s poorest big city, and many homeowners have faced unfair actions from the city. A Detroit News investigation from 2013 found that the city was over-assessing homes by an average of 65%.

While the legislation will be tailored to address the needs in Detroit, it’s reportedly going to allow any qualifying Wayne County homeowner the same relief. Other counties around the state could opt in, Byrd says.

According to Mayor Mike Duggan, roughly 31,000 Detroit homeowners — currently living in their homes — are behind on their taxes. He says more than 60% could meet the program’s income requirements. 

A press release from the mayor’s office says the plan “builds on steps the city and county have already taken to reduce occupied home foreclosures by 94% since 2015.”

So this has the potential to help keep even more residents in their homes.

As the mayor said at a recent press conference: “You will never eliminate the blight if people keep moving out of their houses. I think we can agree that people below the poverty level have a right to be treated differently than the others.” 

That may be true, but state lawmakers will need to craft the legislation carefully so that only the hardest hit residents qualify. It's also possible that low-income Detroit property owners who have managed to pay their bills may feel slighted. 

Byrd introduced similar legislation in August that was more wide-reaching and would have effectively wiped out past tax delinquency for those who qualified. But Wayne County officials had concerns about taking it that far.

Byrd says the new bill will replace the former one, and that it would be open to any local treasurer to opt in to the program, so that residents of Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac or other struggling communities could benefit. 

Detroit housing advocates say this latest debt relief proposal could have a significant impact. The Quicken Loans Community Fund, for instance, estimates 90% of homeowners behind on taxes will qualify for the assistance.

If the program can live up to its goal of keeping more Detroiters in their homes, then this is something lawmakers should pursue.