While Treasurer Eric Sabree has claimed on many occasions that he’s doing all he can to help stem the tide of tax foreclosure that has displaced tens of thousands of Detroiters, it appears it is ultimately this “my-hands-are-tied” mantra that guides the actions of his office.
This is evidenced by two moves that came to light at the end of October, just after this year’s housing auction wrapped up with nearly 2,000 occupied Detroit homes sold.
The first action came following a last-ditch effort by the Detroit assessor’s office to get poverty-stricken families enrolled in a property tax exemption that could eliminate their tax bill. Hundreds of letters and applications were sent to foreclosed homeowners as bidding was underway in the Wayne County tax auction, sending families like the Dickersons in Conant Gardens scrambling to apply for what they thought was their final hope.
The city’s assessor says he embarked on the 11th-hour effort after a conversation with the treasurer’s office gave him the impression that Sabree would pull properties approved for the exemption out of the auction.
“In the past when we’ve had a reason to ask the county to do something like this, they have,” Detroit assessor Alvin Horhn said in an Oct. 25 phone interview. “They’re not unaware of what we’re trying to do here.”
Over the course of about a week, we reached out to the treasurer’s office multiple times to try to confirm that it was indeed cooperating with such a plan. A spokesperson did not answer our questions. In the midst of this, at least one housing nonprofit was using its limited resources to apply as many people as possible for the program.
And still, the Wayne County treasurer sat quiet, compelled only to reveal that the plan was never going to come to fruition when he was cornered by a Detroit Free Press reporter during a Saturday night charity basketball game. Sabree told the reporter that the city had never asked him to pull the homes from the auction.
Sabree’s office did not respond to an email seeking further information. Horhn did not reply to a request for details about the conversation he said he’d had with the treasurer’s office.
Now, the Dickerson family and dozens of other households that would have likely been eligible for the exemption are bracing for homelessness following word that the effort was merely a false alarm.
“I take everything as it comes,” Kevin Dickerson said when we broke the news to him Monday morning. “I get bad news so much in my life, I’m just used to it.”
Dickerson expects he, his wife, and their two teenaged kids have about a month until someone shows up at their door with a deed and puts them out. The home had been in his family since about 1950, when it was built at the behest of his grandmother. It was lost for a four-year period after his mother came to be the owner and fell upon hard times. Kevin and his wife bought it in 2008, and have since invested more than $20,000 restoring the once blighted house to livability.
In the end, their family home will be lost over $6,800 in back taxes that appear to have been accrued during a two-year period in which Kevin says he and his wife never received a tax bill. Prior to that, they had applied for the poverty tax exemption and assumed it was approved. The yellow baggy that signals foreclosure popped up on their property at the tail end of last year, indicating otherwise.
“I’m done and tired with Detroit,” Dickerson said Monday. “They say Detroit comin’ back, well I don’t want no part of it. If you ain’t downtown — if you stay in the inner city — you just gonna get scammed on and beat out your house.”
“I’ve got no fight left in me.”
“It is within his power to allow people to stay in their homes and keep their homes and, if he decides not to, that’s his decision, that’s totally on him,” Phillips told the Free Press. He noted that a clause in the auction’s terms of service says the county has the right to void sales for any reason up until the point a deed is issued.
Separately, news emerged over the weekend that Sabree had also recently rejected a plan that had the potential to save 600 homes from this year's tax auction. The $200,000 partnership between the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC) and the McGregor Fund was expected to cover the down payment for the households to enroll in payment plans with the county treasurer.
According to Phillips, the McGregor Fund began putting together the grant in August following a conversation he had with a staff member in the treasurer’s office. Once the grant was approved in mid-September, Phillips says Treasurer Sabree said it was too late for the foreclosed households to enroll in payment plans. The county’s deadline for that had been June.
“He had the power to save people’s homes; he had the money to save people’s homes; but he decided to sell them down the river,” anti-foreclosure academic and activist Bernadette Atuahene said after the news broke during an event she coordinated with the Coalition to End Unconstitutional Tax Foreclosures. “It’s unbelievable.”
Phillips also said there was nothing that legally prohibited the treasurer from approving the plan. The treasurer’s office did not reply to a request for comment.
The McGregor Foundation money is now expected to be used to help people stave off foreclosure next year, when thousands more homes are due to embark on the same messy process that continues to plague Detroit a decade after the Great Recession.