“Detroit's greatest paradox is its abundance of space and its scarcity of quality housing.”
At one time, Detroit’s population was almost double what it is now. As people left, so did quality housing. That puts people still in the city at risk, Oberholtzer said.
“The housing is often under code, or not up to par,” she said. “And the moment that a person leaves the home that they live in, that property is subject to scrapping and blight.”
That doesn’t make it easy for people to move into or leave houses in the city.
“Every iteration that we have of moving creates a potential permanent loss in the housing stock,” Oberholtzer said. “And so we’ve seen that through the years of the housing crisis where mortgages went into default, and now we see this continuing with the tax foreclosure crisis.”
The problem now is that people living in homes in Detroit may not actually own the homes. Many have lost them to tax foreclosure.
“We have an important responsibility to take care of those occupied houses and help sustain people in those houses where wherever possible,” Oberholtzer said.
But the problem here is not one of “motive” or “intention,” she said. It's more of a “lag” in response to a “very strange situation, where we have thousands of occupied homes which are owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority.”
She said it’s not the land bank's fault that it’s acquired homes in the city. The homes entered the land bank because the land bank is “the owner of last resort – they take what other government agencies give them.”
Usually, the land bank holds on to houses or properties, and then reintroduces them to the private market when they're ready. That often means destroying the homes, or modifying the properties until they're ready to be reintroduced.
“And for most of the life of the land bank, they haven’t had a program to deal with these ‘accidental occupieds,’” she said. “And they’re seen as sort of an inconvenience or a threat, or maybe just a challenge. And my argument is they don’t have to be.”
The easy answer, Oberholtzer said, is to give the homes back to the people who live in them.
“Give ownership to those people,” she said. “We can’t make these people wealthy in a matter of a day. We can’t make these homes perfect. What we can do is to change the name on the deed.”
That, she said, is a simple act with “powerful implications.”
“If we don’t do that, the person may eventually have to leave the home… the home can become blighted and destroyed forever," she said. "Now, we’ve lost a family and a home. But if we allow those people to stay and to have ownership interest, then they have a greater wealth in that ownership. And they have incentives to make improvements to the home over time, and to create a change in that trajectory.”
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