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Wayne County extends foreclosure deadline, as protesters call for moratorium

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

Wayne County has again extended the deadline for homeowners to avoid tax foreclosure.

Facing the prospect of an unprecedented foreclosure crisis, the county has expanded its outreach efforts to distressed homeowners, and had already moved back the original March payment deadline to Monday. 

But after being deluged by even more people seeking help, the Wayne County Treasurer's Office said late Monday that it would move the deadline back to Thursday.

The treasurer’s office issued about 75,000 foreclosure notices for back taxes last year – 62,000 in Detroit alone.

According to the most recent preliminary data, about 26,000 of those Detroit properties were still headed for foreclosure as of Monday. About 10,000 are believed to be occupied, with a little under half of them owner-occupied.

But many activists and city residents say their efforts have been inadequate, and maintain the entire process is riddled with flaws and pitfalls.

They point out that many Detroit homeowners owe thousands of dollars in taxes based on property assessments that are hugely inflated or simply wrong. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan agrees, and has launched a city-wide reassessment — but that process is ongoing.

Jerome Goldberg, an attorney with the Moratorium Now! Coalition, also argues that many Detroiters entitled to hardship and property exemptions from property taxes aren’t getting them. And he says the city and county should push the state to use a pot of federal housing funds to help keep people in their homes.

“We could avoid this crisis altogether, pay off the delinquent bills of occupied homes, and move forward to reassess those bills until people can come up for a long term solution to this problem,” Goldberg says. “There are solutions to this crisis, but the biggest solution is to keep people in their homes.”

Goldberg and others, including U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, say the county should put a moratorium on tax foreclosures in the meantime.

But Detroit and Wayne County officials say they’re just following state law — and that delinquent homeowners have had plenty of time and opportunities to get help.

“But there are those we cannot help,” says deputy Wayne County treasurer David Szymanski. “Because there are people who simply can’t afford to own a home, or don’t have the tools to be homeowners.”

Szymanski says the county has lobbied the state to release more federal funds, and succeeded in securing some additional money. But he says federal restrictions make it difficult to reallocate that money.

Szymanski says the treasurer’s office has helped about 19,000 homeowners get on low-interest payment plans so far — about 98% of those who came through their doors.

But Goldberg and others say the county has been too quick to put people on payment plans they can’t afford, and that disaster is looming once those payments come due.

That’s the case for Alesie Kennedy, who owes property taxes dating back to 2011.

Kennedy says her daughter, who was helping support her, died of cancer in 2010. She tried to get a hardship exemption to clear the debt, but says she didn’t qualify for any assistance programs because the home is in her daughter’s name.

Now Kennedy is on a payment plan to try and avoid foreclosure, but says she can’t afford the $1,200 down payment plus more than $300 a month. “I know I’m going back into foreclosure again,” she says.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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