Saskia Thompson will be the new executive director of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, the largest land bank in the U.S. A native Detroiter who has worked with city administrations in Philadelphia, Charlotte and her own hometown, she will begin work in September at a public authority that now has about 135 employees and 98,000 parcels — about 10 percent of the entire city — in its inventory.
“Saskia Thompson has the right blend of experience and knowledge for this extremely important position,” said Erica Ward Gerson, the land bank’s board chair, in a statement. “Her deep understanding of governmental operations, project management and public finance made her the obvious choice.”
Detroit’s land bank was founded in 2008 to transition tens of thousands of vacant properties in the city to productive use. One of its most popular programs sells residents the vacant side lot that neighbors their property for $100. Residents can create expanded yards and gardens, and simultaneously, a once-abandoned patch of land returns to the tax rolls. The auction program sells homes online, with tools to filter out absentee speculators. The Rehabbed & Ready program sells move-in ready homes to kickstart a neighborhood’s real estate, and in the new Occupied Buy Back program, people who lose their homes or rentals to foreclosure can return with a free and clear deed.
In 2014, the year Mayor Mike Duggan took office and land bank operations accelerated, about 40,000 blighted houses were counted in Detroit, with another 38,000 headed that way. Since then, the land bank has supervised the demolition of about 11,000 vacant houses, the renovation of 3,000 homes and the sale of 6,900 vacant lots. Each demolition is reported to increase the value of nearby homes by more than 4 percent.
But the land bank has also faced a great deal of turbulence. Thompson will be the third executive director in as many years. The demolition program has hit challenges in its attempt to speedily respond to blight — including a federal investigation and property disputes. More than $250 million in federal dollars pays for the demolitions, largely through the federal “Hardest Hit Fund” established as part of the Obama administration’s response to the housing crisis. The FBI and a U.S. Treasury inspector general are investigating the demolition program’s bidding practices and high costs. The land bank, which is cooperating with investigators, had to suspend operations for two months, and it recently cut ties with two of the demolition program’s leaders. It also recently reached a $5 million settlement with the state for a case related to invoices that exceeded a $25,000-per-house federal cap, though the state agreed, in turn, to send $5 million back to Detroit demolitions. In 2015, the land bank halved the number of recommended demolitions for the city, from 80,000 to 40,000.
In addition to federal scrutiny on the demolitions, the land bank still has an astonishing amount of work ahead. It has about 65,000 vacant lots in its inventory, and a backlog of about 30,000 houses that it hopes to move off its books by about 2022. Even for those who want to make Detroit their home, mortgages and rehab loans are exceptionally rare.
But then, this is not exactly news to Thompson. She grew up in Detroit’s North Rosedale neighborhood, where her parents still live today, and she attended the city’s Cass Technical High School. She comes from a family that is uncommonly attuned to social justice, politics and policy. Her father, Frank Thompson, was a longtime professor in the University of Michigan’s Residential College, teaching social theory and practice. Her sister, Heather Ann Thompson, also teaches at the university and won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in history for her book “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.”
Thompson chose public service as her way to engage the difficult issues facing cities. She returns to Detroit after serving as the deputy finance director in Philadelphia. There, she also has been on the city planning commission and she’s led the Office of Property Data in Philadelphia, which was founded to bring all the information about property development and maintenance in Philly to a single place.
Before that, she spent nine years as the executive director of the city manager’s office in Charlotte, North Carolina. She also managed the office of the Charlotte City Council and worked on the bid that secured the 2012 Democratic National Convention for the city. Early in her career, she worked for two years in the administration of Mayor Dennis Archer in Detroit, tackling public policy.
“I am thrilled at the opportunity to come back to my hometown, and be a part of the great work that is being done by the city of Detroit and the Detroit Land Bank,” Thompson said in a news release. “This is a tremendous opportunity and a time of real possibility for Detroit neighborhoods. I can’t wait to get started.”
Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. She has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, NBC News online, Pacific Standard and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. Anna is the editor of A Detroit Anthology and author of Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden. A former Fulbright fellow, she is also the director of applications for Write a House. Her website is annaclark.net.