An 83-year-old retired engineer in Michigan underpaid his property taxes by $8.41. In response, Oakland County seized his property, auctioned it off to settle the debt, and pocketed nearly $24,500 in excess revenue from the sale.
Under Michigan law, it was all legal. And hardly uncommon.
Uri Rafaeli, who lost his property and all the equity associated with it, is just one of thousands of people to be victimized by Michigan’s uniquely aggressive property tax statute. The law, passed in 1999 in an attempt to accelerate the rehabilitation of abandoned properties, empowers county treasurers to act as debt collectors. In the process, it creates a perverse incentive by allowing treasurers’ offices to retain excess revenue raised by seizing and selling properties with delinquent taxes—even when the amount owed is miniscule, and even when the homes aren’t abandoned or blighted at all.
Organizations representing property owners like Rafaeli say the practice is unconstitutional, inequitable, and unreasonably harsh. They call it “home equity theft”—a process that’s a close relative to the civil asset forfeiture laws that have been used by police departments to similarly deprive innocent Americans of their property without due process. They are now asking the state Supreme Court to restrict the practice.
“Michigan is currently stealing from people across the state,” says Christina Martin, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit law firm now representing Rafaeli and other homeowners in a class-action lawsuit that will go before the Michigan Supreme Court in early November.
“Counties have been authorized to take not just what they are owed, but to take people’s life savings.”
A Win-Win Situation
Rafaeli’s case—which has the potential to stop the predatory behavior of county treasurers across the state—began with a simple mistake.
In August 2011, Rafaeli purchased a three-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot home in the predominantly African American community of Southfield, Michigan, a lower-middle-class suburb just north of Detroit. “The investment was good to the state economy, and [at] the same time, it may produce a good rent for my retirement. A ‘win-win’ situation,” says Rafaeli, who lived in neighboring Macomb County at the time. (He no longer lives in Michigan.)
The $60,000 purchase was recorded by the Oakland County Register of Deeds on January 6, 2012. About six months later, in June 2012, Rafaeli was notified that he had underpaid his 2011 property tax bill by $496. Rafaeli made subsequent property tax payments on time and in full—and, in January 2013, he attempted to settle the unpaid tax debt, according to court documents.
But he made a mistake in calculating the interest owed, resulting in another underpayment of $8.41.
A little more than a year later, in February 2014, Rafaeli’s rental property was one of 11,000 properties put up for auction by Oakland County. It was sold for $24,500 in August of the same year—far less than what Rafaeli had paid for the property just three years earlier.
Today, real estate service Zillow, which rates the Southfield region as a “hot” market in the Detroit region, estimates the property is worth $128,000, But Rafaeli has missed out on reaping a financial reward for being an early investor in the area.
“I believed in the power of the U.S. to withstand the difficulties,” says Rafaeli, “and I believed in its fairness and dignity in doing business there.” Now, he says, he thinks differently.
“Punitive for Property Owners, and Profitable for the County”
In court documents, Rafaeli’s attorneys estimate there have been more than 100,000 properties—along with the “entire equity in them”—that have been taken by Michigan counties since 2002. “In thousands of instances each year, the proceeds for a given property sold at auction far exceed the delinquent tax amount and are far less than a delinquent taxpayer’s equity in the property,” they argue. “This results in millions of dollars in surplus proceeds and equity for the counties and tax sale purchasers.”
At the root of those seizures is a 1999 update to Michigan’s general property tax statute. That legislation, Act 123 of 1999, gave Michigan’s 83 county treasurers the authority to act as the primary agents for handing the foreclosure and auction of properties with unpaid taxes. It also expedited the process for seizing and auctioning homes that owed taxes, allowing county treasuries to sweep aside liens and other speed bumps in the tax foreclosure process.
The legislation’s goals were “to encourage the rapid reuse of property, prevent the onset of blight, and improve the overall use of property” in the state, according to a 2011 University of Michigan report about the effects of Act 123 in Wayne County—where Detroit is located, and where the 1999 law has had the most devastating effects on homeowners.
Over the past decade, more than 150,000 properties in Detroit have gone through the tax forfeiture process, according to data collected by Jerry Paffendorf, the founder of Loveland Technologies, a Detroit-based mapping firm. The process, says Paffendorf, is “punitive for property owners and profitable for the county.”
Paffendorf became increasingly interested in Michigan’s unique tax foreclosure rules shortly after Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy, when his company worked with an anti-blight task force to identify and photograph abandoned properties across the city. At the time, the media was fascinated with Detroit’s economic collapse—one of the most memorable signs of which were the homes being auctioned for $1,000 or less.
As he began tracking the supposedly vacant homes being auctioned off by the city, Paffendorf noticed an odd trend: Lots of them weren’t actually vacant.
“There was sort of an assumption that tax foreclosures were happening to abandoned buildings. You know, properties that people had left,” he tells Reason. But that wasn’t always the case. “We saw thousands of properties that had people living in them being auctioned.”
That was happening because of the accelerated foreclosure process created by Act 123, which harshly punished any Michigander for falling behind on property tax payments. Prior to 1999, the average time between a property falling into tax delinquency and foreclosure was five to seven years, but Act 123 reduced that timeline to a little over two years. The accelerated foreclosure process caught many homeowners who fell behind on their taxes during the Great Recession.
In Michigan, property taxes are due twice per year. Bills are sent in July and December, with payments due in April and November. If there are outstanding debts from the previous year, delinquent properties are turned over to the county in March the following year. The county buys the debt from municipalities—the funding comes from the county’s “delinquent tax revolving fund” (DTRF)—and the county effectively becomes the debt collector for the unpaid taxes. Under state law, counties are allowed to impose a one-time 4 percent administrative fee to each delinquent property, and may charge 1 percent interest for every month the tax remains unpaid.
If the property owner still owes back taxes by March 31 of the third year of delinquency—that is, two years and 31 days after the county took over the collection process—the county can foreclose and take the property to auction.