Detroit School series: housing insecurity in Detroit

The American Dream of owning a home isn’t dead in Detroit – but it struggles under the weight of predatory lending practices, complicit landlords, real estate speculators and public officials whose interventions and policies can make the city’s complicated housing challenges even worse.

That may sound bleak, and Detroit’s housing crisis certainly is, according to a recent Detroit School series panel discussion at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. While there is still enormous work to be done, there is hope through researchers searching diligently for solutions, activists working alongside homeowners as well as journalists taking on institutions and serving as watchdogs on exploitive practices and investors, the panelist agreed.

The panel, the first Detroit School event hosted at UM-Dearborn, focused on people working within the area of housing insecurity in Detroit. The Detroit School series seeks to stimulate an interdisciplinary conversation on how research on Detroit—a city often seen as an extreme outlier of decline—can produce knowledge that is original and relevant to urban studies globally. 

Moderator Josh Akers explained that the effects of the foreclosure crisis are very present in Detroit, even after a decade of revival and growth in other cities. Akers is an assistant professor of geography and urban and regional studies at UM-Dearborn. His research and writing examine the intersection of markets and policy and their material impacts on urban neighborhoods and everyday life.

What is unique in Detroit, panelists said, is there are long-term issues with large landlords who use the system, banks and other methods to exploit low-income communities and boost their own profits.

Banks and others also peddle “toxic products” to neighborhoods, and homeowners were sometimes blindsided when the home they thought they owned was sold out from under them, said Eric Seymour of Brown University, where he works on issues surrounding housing at the Brown Population Studies and Training Center.

“They all got away with it and now we’re doing mop-up stories we can’t keep up with,” agreed ACORN founder Wade Rathke. “There aren’t enough boots on the ground. … What’s happened in Detroit is a lesson for the whole country.”

The question revolves, in part, around neighborhood stability, Akers said. He noted that there are groups working with homeowners to help them keep their homes and become educated on very complex processes, but there are holes that still need to be filled. “It’s piecemeal and it is volunteer work, but there is an effort,” he said.

“You need a regulatory regime that puts people first,” added Rathke, who is currently running the multi-city Homesaver Campaign organizing contract buyers. The activist argued that laws that aimed to defend tenants and homeowners from housing predators are generally weak and that stronger, smarter protections are needed across the board, especially in Detroit.

What makes the housing story difficult to cover, said the Detroit Free Press’s Allie Gross, is the way chasing down a homeowner or landlord feels like a game of musical chairs. Gross recalled a story about a speculator from out of state who heard Detroit real estate was a bargain, bought nearly two dozen properties in an online auction, sat on them and then sold them without ever investing at all in the people or the city of Detroit.

Another challenge is reader and editor interest in the topic, journalist Christine MacDonald said. She noted that tax foreclosures are an incredibly compelling subject as a reporter; she called the situation a “ticking time bomb.” But she struggled at times to get stories in The Detroit News, saying her bosses sometimes doubted the relevance of her stories or that her articles felt repetitive.

“We need more public service journalism,” Gross agreed. “We can do better.”

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit reporter with more than 20 years of writing experience including work for The Oakland Press, The Detroit News and Corp! magazine. She’s free-lanced for Time magazine, U.S. News and World Report, The Hollywood Reporter and more. She’s the author of four local history books including “Better Made in Michigan,” “The Witch of Delray,” and “Secret Detroit.”


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