The ravaging of Detroit neighborhoods by tax foreclosures

The ravaging of Detroit neighborhoods by tax foreclosures
March 8, 2017 Michigan Radio

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By Lester Graham | Michigan Radio

Downtown Detroit is in a revival, but neighborhoods across the city are still declining. One of the reasons is the onslaught of tax foreclosures. It leaves more vacant houses. Soon the house is stripped by scrappers and the destruction affects the whole block.

Ulysses Jones drove me around his neighborhood, MorningSide on Detroit’s east side. He’s with a community organization also called MorningSide.

“Well, this section of MorningSide, the southeast section, was a primary area for Habitat for Humanity and also with U-Snap-Bac,” Jones explained as we drove through a neighborhood that looks a lot like the suburbs.

It’s a couple of blocks of pretty, new row houses. Then we reach the end of the block. The last house is vacant.

“One of the Habitat houses, I think, has been ransacked. The door is missing and it’s unsecured,” Jones said.

It doesn’t take much of a hint before scrappers take everything of value from the house, from wiring to plumbing, from furnaces to bathroom fixtures.

This is a big problem in MorningSide and just about every neighborhood in Detroit. If there’s the slightest clue that the house is empty, scrappers descend. Once that happens, the chances of someone buying the house and making it a home are slim.

“You know, if they strip it to the point where somebody might not want it, you know, it’s just going to sit there. So, we made our business to watch out for that house,” said Lenora McElrath.

She lives on a block of nice brick Tudors and bungalows. However, there are vacant houses on her block. She says she and her neighbors watch constantly to make sure scrappers don’t break into them.

“We question them. ‘Can I help you?’ If you know no one lives there, you ask questions. ‘Can I help you?’ When dealing with these situations, I don’t necessarily like to be confrontational because, you know, I’m up in age. But, when you come into my neighborhood, and you think you’re going to get away with doing something, that’s not happening.”

She and her neighbors make the vacant houses appear lived in. They mow the lawns, trim the bushes, pick up the leaflets.

Every year hundreds of homes in MorningSide end up being auctioned off by the government. In any given year about one-out-of-five of the more than 4000 houses are at risk of foreclosure. Last year 800 were potential foreclosures. 300 homes actually ended up being auctioned. The others arranged last minute payments.

Jackie Grant keeps track of the numbers. She’s worked with Loveland Technologies which monitors every parcel of property in the city. She says unemployment is chronically twice that of the state average. Predatory lending led to mortgage foreclosures. Then Detroit’s bankruptcy cut retired city workers pensions hurting their ability to keep up with tax bills.

“All of that played into that. That’s when, I think, a lot of homes really began to be lost,” Grant explained.

Many of the investors who buy the properties don’t secure them, don’t resell them, don’t rent them. They just sit there until scrappers arrive.

“After it ravages the neighborhood, all of these things and the scrappers, it reduces our property values to literally nothing,” Grant said.

Back at Lenora McElrath’s, we take a walk around the block. Last year the city said it would demolish some of the houses that are beyond saving. They’re still standing. The windows are broken and the buildings are deteriorating quickly.

McElrath says when she moved here 23 years ago, she was struck by the beauty of her neighborhood.

“The first thing I noticed was all the trees. It was just beautiful,” she said. Then she quietly added, “It’s going down. But, we’re not going to give up. That’s the big thing: not giving up.”

What does MorningSide’s struggles with tax foreclosures say about how Detroit is doing?

Lenora McElrath, resident of MorningSide neighborhood.


(edited for clarity)

“Well, I’ve been living here for 23 years. When I first moved here, of course, we know this was a beautiful neighborhood. And then, people started losing their jobs, it affected it to that point that we have what we have.

We’ve got three vacant houses behind us which we’re trying to deal with. Then say (City of) Detroit comes in. And we’ve got so many vacant lots, we say, ‘Well, what can we do with these lots?’ The first people want to say is a community garden or a park or whatever. We didn’t like that idea. They (the City) put a little park over there. This is a residential neighborhood. Now, I have no problem with a park, so to speak. Well, I do have a problem with it. I guess I’ll just say it. I don’t like the idea. If you want to do something with the lots, my thought is: let’s start rebuilding, putting some more homes, turn it back into a residential area like it’s supposed to be.

How Detroit is doing? From my perspective, from looking at my area, I know they’re doing a lot of things downtown. That’s wonderful. But, I’m waiting to see when it’s going to come into the neighborhoods. Fine. Downtown is great, but let’s see some progress in the neighborhoods and then I’ll feel better about that.”

Katie Grant, member of MorningSide community organization and former employee with Loveland Technologies.


“We all know that downtown is doing very well, but the majority of this city is in the neighborhoods. There are a few communities that are really blossoming. Our community is not seeing very much happen.

MorningSide I think in a lot of ways –my son is in District 3 and they call themselves the forgotten neighborhood, but we are also sort of bypassed.

Our neighbor, East English Village, gets much, much more than we do, much more help. When anybody comes up with a city project and they talk about this neighborhood or that neighborhood, the first two that come up are Grandmont/Rosedale and East English Village. But, East English Village is six streets. We’re 19 streets. And if we don’t do well, it ultimately is going to hurt them. We need our leaders to get busy and help us over here.

This is difficult to deal with 19 streets, 5,500 plus properties and to navigate through all of the problems. I mean, you feel like you’re being buried alive sometimes, you know, with the work that needs to be done or what’s making the difference. That being said, we keep on keeping on as people say. But, we need a lot of help here. We need a lot of help.”

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