Metro Detroit homeowners urged to get help with back taxes

July 6th, 2017
Libby Palackdharry, Director of Financial Stability programs at Southwest Solutions, is interviewed for this story on Step Forward Michigan.
Metro Detroit homeowners urged to get help with back taxes

Kate Wells
Michigan Radio
July 5, 2017

In Wayne County alone, some 10,000 properties are scheduled to be auctioned off this fall because of back taxes, according to Treasurer Eric Sabree. It’s a massive problem affecting people across the Metro Detroit area, and county officials are pushing homeowners to see if they can qualify for federal help.

They tried to get the word out Wednesday about the Step Forward Michiganprogram, which offers up to $30,000 in no-interest loans to help people catch up on back taxes or mortgage payments. The state says some 6,000 Michigan households are eligible for the $40 million left in the program. (That money expires in 2020, at which point they go back to the US Treasury.)

But to qualify, owners need to prove they had an “involuntary qualifying hardship” (like losing a job or getting divorced) that prevented them from making those payments.

Owners also need to show they’re making enough money to afford future payments – but they’ll also be asked if they have less than $10,000 in the bank (not including retirement accounts), which is a prerequisite for qualifying.

“Statewide, 34,217 Michigan homeowners have qualified for $305 million in loans since the program began in 2010, with nearly half being in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties,” officials said in a press release Wednesday.

But when asked how many residents who apply are accepted into the Step Forward program, a state official says that’s tricky.

“That’s always a hard one to answer, because a lot of residents will start the application, but then they, ya know, turn a blind eye to it, saying ‘maybe this will be too much work,’ or ‘I don’t want to do this,’ and then they stop,” says Mary Townley, director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s Homeownership Division. “Of those that finish the application, we have a pull through rate of about 60 percent. Which I think is pretty high.”

The average assistance from the program is about $7,000, Townley says, which is the total of what’s past due.

Under the program, loans are forgiven at 20 percent a year, and then forgiven entirely after 5 years, so long as the homeowner remains in the home during that time.

“From a family’s perspective, it’s going to look probably like two to three years of delinquent taxes,” says Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner. “They got knocked off their stride by joblessness, medical problem, divorce, death.  They got in a hole. And that’s when they stopped paying. A lot of these people had good payment histories before that.”

But some housing experts say that money could be better used to help a wider range of people stay in their homes – especially those who are struggling with poverty.

“I see thousands of people every year who need help,” says Michele Oberholtzer, founder of the Tricycle Collective, a non-profit helping Detroiters at risk of foreclosure. “What we see in terms of the application for homeowners, is it’s very, very few people who are approved [for Step Forward Michigan.] I council my clients: ‘This is like a free lottery ticket. It doesn’t hurt to apply, but you’re very unlikely to win.’”

“The reasons people are rejected are wide-ranging, and often pretty frivolous,” she says. “You can’t get help if you’re low income. The unexpected hardship [requirement] is very telling, [and doesn’t help] if you’re just poor and struggling. It’s a very narrow, middle class mindset.”

But for those who do qualify, it’s a pretty solid program, says Libby Palackdharry, director of financial stability programs at Southwest Solutions, a Detroit agency that offers housing and financial help.

“The reason there’s been so much activity [around this program] in Detroit is it can also be used for property tax foreclosure issues,” Palackdharry says. “That’s what the vast amount of people we’re working with [are experiencing.] It’s been very popular because it helps to bring people current.”

But eligibility has gotten trickier, she says.

“The new wrinkle that’s made it kind of challenging, is that in addition to proving that you have that [qualifying hardship] setback, is you also need to be able to provide receipts showing that you’re paying that [cost] instead of your property taxes.”

And that’s been a big hurdle for the people they counsel.

“Before you just had to prove there was something going on and you would be eligible. But now in addition to proving what happened, you also need to prove that you were paying towards that.”

Michigan Radio asked program representatives if those receipts are, in fact, a requirement, but didn’t receive an immediate response.

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