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Tax foreclosures keep Detroit neighborhoods from enjoying greater downtown's revival

Feb 28, 2017

Downtown Detroit is in a revival, but neighborhoods across the city are still declining. One of the reasons is the onslaught of tax foreclosures.  Those foreclosure mean more vacant houses. Soon the homes are stripped by scrappers, and the destruction can affect the whole block.

Ulysses Jones is one of the vice presidents of the MorningSide community organization.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

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.

Lenora McElrath and her neighbors keep watch on the vacant houses on their block. They try to make the houses looked lived in so that scrappers don't strip the homes.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“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.

“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 4,000 houses are at risk of foreclosure. Last year, 800 were potential foreclosures. Three hundred homes actually ended up being auctioned. The others arranged last-minute payments.

Jackie Grant is a MorningSide resident who worked with Loveland Technologies to determine how many occupied homes were at risk of foreclosure.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Jackie Grant keeps track of the numbers. She’s worked with Loveland Technologies, which monitors every parcel of property in the city. (See Loveland Technologies MorningSide report here.) 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 place, 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.”

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.