One-Fifth of Detroit's Population Could Lose Their Homes
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Sid Shniad
2014-10-23 22:02:04 UTC
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*The Atlantic Oct 22 2014*
One-Fifth of Detroit's Population Could Lose Their Homes

* Many families could stay put for just a few hundred dollars, if only they
knew how to work the system.*
* Rose Hackman*

Evone Brown, a 55-year-old former machine operator, survives on $850 a
month from retirement and disability checks, which wasn't enough to cover
the roughly $8,000 she owed in property taxes on her home on the east side
of Detroit. This year, because she was at least three years behind on her
tax payments (most of which she inherited when she bought the house in
2011), Wayne County's treasurer foreclosed on her. As a result, her house
is up for sale this week in Wayne County’s online foreclosure auction
<http://www.waynecountytreasurermi.com/>, at a starting bid of just $500.
She will most likely be evicted this January.

She’s not alone: As Detroit seeks to leave bankruptcy behind and get back
on its feet—ramping up development with construction of a light rail
<http://m-1rail.com/> and a new hockey arena that will cost the city
hundreds of millions of dollars
is simultaneously bearing witness to a process that could evict up to
142,000 of its residents, many of whom are too poor to pay their property

Detroit is 83 percent African-American, and 38 percent of its population
lives below the poverty line
<http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/26/2622000.html>. But the older,
blacker Detroit starkly contrasts
with a whiter, wealthier new Detroit that's been wooed in by tax breaks
and living incentives <http://www.detroitlivedowntown.org/incentives/>—which
gives these evictions a heavily racial subtext.

“Do you think they are going to take my home away from me?” Brown asks,
breaking down in tears. A few feet from her lies her brother, sleeping. He
has just come back from the hospital after being diagnosed with prostate
cancer. Brown herself suffers from arthritis and has mobility issues. A
knee-replacement surgery gone wrong last year left her with one leg shorter
than the other.

“If they kick us out, we won’t have anywhere to go. We will have to go to a
shelter. I don’t want to go to a shelter. I want to stay in my home,” she

This year in Detroit, there have been 22,000 foreclosures on properties
whose owners failed to pay property taxes three years in a row. Of those,
10,000 are estimated to be occupied, meaning this year's foreclosures are
set to oust about 27,000 Detroiters from their homes

That’s a large number in a dwindling city with fewer than 700,000 residents
<http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/26/2622000.html>, but the figures
are set to get even worse. In the next couple of months, Wayne County's
treasurer will be serving foreclosure notices on 110,000 more properties,
85,000 of which are in Detroit, according to its chief deputy treasurer
David Szymanski. With half of those Detroit properties estimated to be
this means a further 115,000 Detroiters might lose their homes next year.

In a city supposedly trying to attract residents rather than lose them,
this means a potential 142,000 Detroiters—one-fifth of the city’s
population—will be shown the door within the next year and a half. The city
has yet to announce plans for accommodating those who get evicted.
Related Story

What Happens When Detroit Shuts Off the Water of 100,000 People

Detroit’s tax-delinquent residents, who together occupy more than half of
the city’s properties according to local data firm Loveland Technologies
are frequently blamed for the city’s underfunded, poorly functioning public
infrastructure and are considered part of the reason the city went bankrupt
in the first place.

The city’s still relatively new mayor, Mike Duggan, likes to say at press
conferences and town-hall meetings that he wants to work with Detroit’s
“good” residents—those who seek to pay their bills and mow their lawns. But
with little active effort put into retaining residents who are behind on
their bills and facing foreclosure, some are beginning to feel like the
evictions are a part of a bigger ploy to rid the city of large chunks of
its poorer residents—a modern-day form of forced relocation.

“It’s a tragic and extreme version of a familiar pattern,” says Cheryl
Harris, a professor of civil rights and civil liberties at the UCLA School
of Law. Harris calls the Detroit auction a massive form of “racial

Forced relocation is a sensitive subject in Detroit, where, in the 1950s, large
chunks of poorer, black neighborhoods were razed to make way for highway
Black residents were violently kept out of whiter areas of the city until
the '60s.

Harris says that these evictions should be viewed alongside the “legacy of
specifically racialized housing policies that put these [black-owned]
properties and these [black] property owners at a distinct disadvantage
within the relative marketplace, and located them as devalued to begin

In a seminal book on Detroit's inequality
Thomas Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of
Pennsylvania, highlighted the long-lasting effects of postwar
housing-discrimination policies, including redlining, which categorized
neighborhoods with even a small handful of black people living in it as
unfit for investment or mortgage loans. (In the July issue of *The Atlantic*
earlier this year, Ta-Nehisi Coates extensively mapped
how these practices played out in Chicago.)

The establishment of two segregated housing markets strongly favored white
people, blocking black people from federally sponsored low-interest housing
loans and making them vulnerable to extortion from opportunistic lenders.
These dual markets set the scene for Detroit’s 1967 race riots and
accelerated the pace of white flight. Ongoing, growing wealth disparities
between white and black families—a recent estimate is that white families
are an average of six times wealthier than their black counterparts
in part be explained by a continuing history of housing discrimination.

To many former and current homeowners in Detroit, this history is at the
heart of their relationship with the city. Arquesha Esters, a 32-year-old
mother of two, who formerly worked as a political organizer around the
country and is now studying social work, returned to Detroit five years ago
with her husband DeAndre after inheriting her great-grandfather’s house.
It's the only house her family has ever owned.

“This is the house my grandfather grew up in, my mother grew up in, and the
one I remember being in as a child. I want my daughters to grow up in this
house too. This is our home,” she says. And yet Esters, who wants to
eventually turn her home into a haven for teenage girls transitioning out
of foster care, may forfeit it in the next few months.

When she first got back to Detroit, finding work was near impossible,
Esters says. The only jobs she could find were at dollar stores and
fast-food restaurants. Eventually, she went back to school and her husband
found a job in construction as a forklift driver. Still, they struggled to
make ends meet and fell behind on bills.

After their basement had a water leak, Esters was hit with a $4,000 water
bill she was unable to pay. The debt was transferred over to her property
taxes—a common practice, one that links Detroit's water-shutoff crisis
directly to these foreclosures. When her house was foreclosed on this year
by Wayne County's treasurer, she owed more than $12,000 in taxes, a bill
that had skyrocketed because of fees and an 18 percent yearly interest
rate. The sum was unreachable for Esters and her family, as was any payment
plan made available to her.
Many homeowners are unaware that they could erase their debts and regain
ownership by bidding on their own homes for prices as low as $500.

Esters may keep an eye on her lawn, and even plant flowers, but to those in
charge, that doesn’t quite cut it. “If they can’t afford to pay their
taxes, they really can’t afford to own a home. Therefore rather than being
a homeowner, they should be a renter,” says Szymanski, the chief deputy

Perhaps because so many believe that poor people are ill-equipped to be
very few people losing their homes to foreclosure have been informed that
they can re-buy their homes. A given house’s unpaid property taxes can
amount to thousands of dollars, yet many homeowners aren’t aware that they
could erase their debts and regain ownership by bidding on their own homes
for prices as low as $500

When Michele Oberholtzer, a Detroit-based writer and engineer, surveyed a
thousand foreclosed properties on a private contract last month, she
noticed that few of the residents knew about their options. She says around
90 percent of the people she spoke with were either unaware of the
auction’s existence or of their ability to at least try to buy back their
foreclosed houses, canceled of all debt. Community-based organizations are
doing as much as they can to redress this information gap, but resources
are limited.

Properties for sale in the Wayne County auction went up in a first round in
September for the total cost of taxes and liens owed. The second October
round irreversibly expunges all debt and sells houses at a starting bid of
$500, covering Wayne County’s estimated administrative costs for one house.
The second round of the auction started on October 9 and runs through
October 28, but its most heated days are in its final week. Starting
yesterday, final bids are closing on 100 houses every 15 minutes.

Harris says that these evictions should be viewed alongside the “legacy of
specifically racialized housing policies."

Since her discovery that families with young children live in foreclosed
houses and are often ill-informed about what can be done to reclaim them,
Oberholtzer began seeking funds. She created the ‘Tricycle Collective”
<https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-tricycle-collective> and has
managed to raise money for 10 families, including Esters’s, with the aim of
buying their homes back at auction. Many of Oberholtzer’s friends—young,
white, college-educated professionals like her—are bidding in the Wayne
County tax foreclosure auction on houses for themselves, she says.

Tragically, the most desirable homes to be bought up at auction are those
that are still occupied, like the houses Esters and Brown are living in.
Abandoned properties, on the other hand, tend to quickly get stripped of
all their valuable parts <http://goobingdetroit.tumblr.com/> and are
therefore very expensive to get back up to livable conditions.

There are other, larger-scale efforts to help. Ted Phillips, the director
of the United Community Housing Coalition in downtown Detroit, has been
leading the charge to inform people about their options once their houses
have been foreclosed on. If they aren’t granted an extension or put on a
payment plan, the coalition will do its best to bid on their homes.
Phillips says he and his team of seven will be cramming round a conference
table this week, seeking to buy back around 500 houses at an estimated
average price of $1,250. When a wave of foreclosures hit the city a decade
ago, the United Community Housing Coalition was able to prevent most
evictions, but there are too many foreclosures now for the organization to
fight all of them.

People like Brown, the former machine operator on the east side, inevitably
fall through the cracks, putting them at risk of opportunistic lending
schemes. The only person who has offered to help so far is a “foreclosure
specialist” who phoned Brown last week offering her a last-minute loan, she

Predatory lenders and speculators circle around like vultures during the
tax foreclosure process. Two years ago, a 96-year-old woman who was taking
care of her 65-year-old disabled daughter was, unbeknownst to her,
foreclosed on. Her house was bought by a speculator at auction for just
$1,300, Phillips says. The following January, the new owner of her former
house threatened her with eviction but offered to sell her the house back
for $19,000. With the help of Phillips and his team, who managed to
negotiate the price down a little, the house was eventually sold back to
its original elderly occupant and daughter at a price of $13,000. This is
common practice, Phillips says, with many houses being bought at auction by
“investors” and sold back to poorly informed occupants at inflated
prices—five to 10 times that of the auction sale.

Esters seems hopeful that she’ll get a last-minute reprieve, but second
chances for people like her do not currently seem to figure within city
policy. A recently revamped Detroit Land Bank Authority is focusing on
attracting new residents to the city, not retaining old ones. The authority
is selling homes owned or reclaimed by the city of Detroit through a much
more curated online auction of its own—“Neighbors wanted,” its website
chirpily declares <http://www.buildingdetroit.org/>.

The second part of the Detroit Land Bank Authority’s mandate—apart from
attracting a desirable kind of resident—is to execute a plan to completely
eradicate blight in Detroit over the next five years at a total cost of
between $500 million and $1 billion
<http://report.timetoendblight.org/funding/>. The money initially being
used for blight removal is $52 million in federal funds that was originally
marked for foreclosure relief. Craig Fahle, a spokesperson at the
authority, called demolition efforts some neighborhoods’ “most pressing
The only person who has offered to help is a “foreclosure specialist” who
phoned Brown last week offering her a last-minute loan.

But Esters, whose block in East Detroit only has six occupied houses left
out of around 26, says that in the past five years, three occupied houses
have become vacant as a result of foreclosure. All three houses are now
completely dilapidated, fit for demolition. “Don’t you think the best way
to stop blight is to keep people in their homes?” she wondered.

Esters points to the house next door to hers, which had belonged to a
family named the Longs for three generations. The Longs were foreclosed on
two years ago, and now the house has become a magnet for crack users, she
says. Still, Esters wants to stay. “This may look like a third-world
country, but we’re a tight-knit community,” she says.

Regardless of whether she manages to keep her house, the future of Esters’s
neighborhood may not be in her hands. Detroit's movers and shakers have
widely accepted an urban-planning report and "strategic framework" released
by Detroit Future City <http://detroitfuturecity.com/framework/> last year.
Mayoral 10-point plans, city reports, and grant applications all
self-consciously keep in step with Detroit Future City's agenda, which
includes provisions for the emptying out of certain neighborhoods over

Detroit Future City's maps show that Esters’s and Brown’s neighborhoods are
set to be emptied out, with the recommendation that they be “steadily
depopulated.” This would be to make way for “innovation productive” use,
which seems to refer to land being used for water containment and possible

The Detroit Land Bank Authority will be given all of the un-purchased lots
from the Wayne County auction, meaning that the authority may soon begin to
have what it needs to realize the Detroit Future City plan.

For Harris, the civil-rights law professor at UCLA, pushing residents out
and blaming their lack of ability to pay is ignoring the larger, structural
issue of racial discrimination. “I do want to resist the notion that this
is about individual behavior of individual Detroiters when what’s been
happening in the city is a kind of slow hollowing out for the purposes of a
re-takeover,” Harris says. “They have no intention of locking the gates on
Detroit and walking away. That is not what is happening here. What is
happening is a kind of clearing on the ground for its reconstitution.”
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