Editorial: Washtenaw County effectively manages tax foreclosures for community's benefit
One of Washtenaw County's rites of summer begins this week: The annual tax foreclosure auctions of property - homes, buildings and land - that the county now owns due to non-payment of property taxes.
The process has existed for decades, but by the time the Great Recession took hold of the U.S., the number of Washtenaw County properties heading to auction climbed exponentially from a typical handful to several hundred.
The number of properties heading into the auctions, which begin July 16 and are scheduled to end Nov. 5, is down about 33 percent this year from 2012. And the 2012 number was one-third fewer than the 2011 peak of 639 parcels heading to auction.
The tax foreclosures represented just one aspect of the financial crisis, but it was one that local officials recognized early and took quick steps to mitigate.
McClary’s staff, for example, for years now has been actively helping homeowners understand the law and looking for solutions in hardship cases to prevent the foreclosure step.
In Ypsilanti, city officials got creative about making sure that the homes heading to auction were visible to potential buyers. They circulated marketing materials and scheduled open houses, a step that was extended this year to Ypsilanti Township.
Meanwhile, in Ypsilanti Township, officials saw the opportunity to use the community’s so-called right of first refusal to purchase seven homes and three lots that had been headed to auction. All will be sold to Habitat for Humanity.
All of this follows McClary’s effort to prioritize the auction process and make it efficient and effective for the county. That included hiring online auction companies to get maximum exposure for the most marketable properties, and setting up “last chance” sales with low minimum bids when other steps didn’t yield a buyer.
The impact of the tax foreclosures touches many aspects of the community, beyond the former owners. This year’s properties heading to auction account for a combined $1.58 million in unpaid taxes and fees. And the years-long process to reach the auction stage means that most have been vacant and unattended for some time. That so many of these properties are in residential neighborhoods means that neighbors are living with the effects of the foreclosures, too.
All of Washtenaw County has benefitted from the steps these officials - particularly McClary - have taken to restore these properties to tax-generating parcels under responsible ownership. Part of the effort is their statutory responsibility. Yet the benefits for this community stem from the creativity they’ve been able to apply to find real solutions.