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.

Updated 10/26/2014

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, 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 and a new hockey arena that will cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars—it 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 taxes.

Detroit is 83 percent African-American, and 38 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. But the older, blacker Detroit starkly contrasts with a whiter, wealthier new Detroit that's been wooed in by tax breaks and living incentives—which gives these evictions a heavily racial subtext.

Dean-Ginae Esters, aged four, and her family will be evicted if their house is sold at auction this week. (Michele Oberholtzer/The Tricycle Collective)

“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 says.

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, 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 75,000 more properties, 62,000 of which are in Detroit, according to its chief deputy treasurer David Szymanski.* With half of those Detroit properties estimated to be occupied, this means a further 115,000 Detroiters might lose their homes next year. (There are 110,000 properties in Wayne County that are eligible to be foreclosed on next year, 85,000 of which are in Detroit.)

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.

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 dispossession.”

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 development. 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 with.”

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—can 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.

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 treasurer.

Perhaps because so many believe that poor people are ill-equipped to be homeowners, 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.

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” 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 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 says.

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.

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. The money initially being used for blight removal is $52 million in federal funds that was originally marked for foreclosure relief. (The Detroit Land Bank Authority says it was not involved in the decisions about the allocation of the federal funds.) Craig Fahle, a spokesperson at the authority, called demolition efforts some neighborhoods’ “most pressing need.”

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 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 others.

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 aquaculture.

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. The Detroit Land Bank Authority has said that a plan to prevent residents from losing their homes is in the works.

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.”

* This post originally stated that 110,000 properties in Wayne County are set to be foreclosed on next year. We regret the error.