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.
“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 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 occupied, 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. … 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.
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.
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.
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.