Housing activists are calling for Detroit and Wayne County to continue its freeze on foreclosures. The coalition of city residents, elected officials and legal advocacy groups is directing their pleas to Wayne County’s Treasurer Eric Sabree to continue the moratorium, which started this year at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re asking that [Sabree] continue to ask the court to halt foreclosures in 2021,” says Bonsitu Kitaba, the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “And in 2022 and beyond, commit to asking the court not to foreclose on any owner-occupied homes in Detroit.”
Sabree halted the program at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, preventing about 10,000 properties from going to auction. That includes about 3,200 owner-occupied homes. But the Coalition for Property Tax Justice says many of those foreclosures were prompted by illegal over-assessments of property values and that Sabree can use the same authority to pause foreclosures next year.
“40% of Detroiters live below the poverty line and were not supposed to be paying these property taxes in the first place,” says Bernadette Atuahene, who leads the group. “When we did our study between 2008 and 2015, we found that between 55 and 85% of properties were being assessed in violation of the Michigan State Constitution, which quite clearly says no property should be assessed at more than 50% of the property’s market value.”
Earlier this year, the Coalition for Property Tax Justice sued Wayne County and Michigan, alleging that elected officials failed to properly notify residents of their tax assessments. The lawsuit also names Mayor Mike Duggan and City Assessor Alvin Horhn as defendants.
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib joined the group, urging action to prevent foreclosures during the COVID-19 emergency. “Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree, you know there was wrong here. You need to stand up for the people, right? You’re the public servant. You’re elected by them. No one will fault you for standing with the people.”
Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield is also calling for foreclosure reform.
“We’re asking that the treasurer’s office be removed from the process,” says Brian White, Sheffield’s Chief of Staff. “And ask the courts to be the institutions that administer foreclosure proceedings here in the city of Detroit.”
The coalition argues that thousands of Detroit residents were over-taxed on their homes due to the last decade’s over-assessments. That number could be $600 million, according to an investigation by the Detroit News, helping drive a foreclosure crisis that saw one in three Detroit properties seized in the wake of the Great Recession.
“This didn’t just happen to me,” says Sonja Bonnett, who lost her home to foreclosure. “This happened to about 96,000 Detroit homeowners in an 82% Black city.”
Mario Morrow, a representative for the Wayne County Treasurer’s office, says the foreclosure pause will continue through the end of 2020. He would not comment on the policy’s prospects for next year.