The Blight-Fighting Solution for Saving 40,000 Detroiters From Eviction

Jerry Paffendorf thinks he knows the secret to reducing vacancy in Detroit — and he wants to be the city’s next tax auction czar.

Story by Bill Bradley

Photography by Michelle and Chris Gerard

Published on

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For two years, Crystal Fischer paid a man who did not own her home $500 a month in rent. It wasn’t until the yellow tax foreclosure notices started showing up on the doorstep of her Detroit rental that the 36-year-old mother of two realized something was amiss. That’s when her landlord disappeared.

More than 61,000 properties were foreclosed on for delinquent taxes in the city of Detroit last year. Of those, 24,950 went up to auction this fall. An estimated 8,069 had people, like Crystal Fischer, living in them.

Yellow baggies, filled with paperwork, dot the city every fall — attached to stakes on vacant lots, tied to doorknobs of occupied homes — signaling a new wave of foreclosures. It’s simple: Don’t pay property taxes for three years, and Wayne County forecloses on the property — whether it’s a vacant lot or a crumbling warehouse. If an owner can’t take care of delinquent taxes or get into a payment plan, the county auctions a house off.

It’s a system with good intentions — get delinquent properties back into the hands of private owners and onto the tax rolls. But it’s a tangled web of red tape that often leaves people like Fischer and her children as unintentional flotsam, their shelter and livelihood hanging in the balance. Just like last year, over 60,000 properties are receiving tax foreclosure notices as we speak. And an estimated 40,000-plus are homes with people living in them.

It’s an intensely private affair — losing your home — aired out in public with a bright yellow flag. Some residents who want to stay in their homes know nothing about the options available. Handshake deeds made with distant relatives generations ago leave homeowners hamstrung without proper ownership. And, every October, people wake up to find their homes auctioned off on the Internet.

There’s an information gap. And Loveland Technologies, a Detroit startup that surveys blight, foreclosures and taxation, is working to help bridge that information divide and provide long-term solutions to stem the annual cycle of foreclosed homes.

“One way you can look at it, that’s certainly true, is it’s eminent domain by another name,” Jerry Paffendorf, Loveland’s CEO and co-founder, says of the tax auction. “If you’ve got that much public land, how do you decide who it goes to?” With a zeal for open data and a crack team of researchers and surveyors, Loveland is trying to produce concise and digestible information that can help City Hall figure out what to do with that land or how people like Crystal Fischer can stay in their homes. “It’s money, it’s people’s lives,” Paffendorf says. “It’s the future of the city.”

Loveland isn’t a quirky Detroit-specific Kickstarter project. It went through a modest round of funding from four angel investors and three nonprofit institutions in 2013. There are 14 full-time employees. And this year it began selling surveying software to cities and municipalities across America with its sights set on disrupting legacy geographic information systems (GIS) mapping companies like Esri.

“Information is powerful,” Fischer tells me from her half-packed home weeks before she was able to purchase it for herself in the auction.

Crystal Fischer in her newly purchased home

Detroit From Space

Jerry Paffendorf doesn’t want to save Detroit. When he moved there in 2009, the 34-year-old high school dropout turned futurist had no romantic notions about urban prairies or the rebirth of a former industrial stronghold. He had simply taken an interest in the city from afar. So, after a Silicon Valley startup he co-founded shuttered in 2008 — “We were basically a toy in the grand scheme of things,” he says, laughing about the company, which was essentially Facebook for Second Life (seriously) — he made the move and started couch surfing.

Paffendorf, who is 6 feet 7 inches tall, with a wiry frame, beard, glasses and a penchant for colorful socks, has the calming vibe of an enthusiastic anthropology professor who drops the occasional “fuck” into serious discussion. Everything that comes out of his mouth seems to have a purpose — whether he’s talking about marathons or, say, vacant lots on Detroit’s west side. After his short couch surfing stint, he took up residence at the Russell Industrial Center, an old Albert Kahn-designed factory just north of downtown that was converted into studio space for artists and businesses in the early aughts.

Loveland Technologies founders Jerry Paffendorf and Mary Lorene Carter with their pet dog Pasta Batman in Loveland’s Detroit headquarters.

Now, he’s one of eight candidates to replace retiring Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz, who served for 39 years. Paffendorf initially threw his hat in the ring solely as a way to get Loveland’s ideas into the public conscious and inject issues into the debate. “I felt a moral responsibility and obligation knowing what we know and having seen what we seen,” he says. “That with the first new treasurer coming in for 40 years, whoever it is, has to know exactly what the fuck is going on with tax foreclosure. There are things that I feel that need to happen. Front to back we already understand the system as it exists.”

If the three-person panel selecting Wojtowicz’s replacement chooses Paffendorf, he’d take over on an interim basis until the 2016 election. Whoever is picked — the panel hasn’t set a date yet, though Wojtowicz retires December 1st — will immediately have a very real opportunity to help reshape and overhaul Detroit’s broken tax foreclosure system. Paffendorf seems more concerned about helping reform the tax auction and addressing foreclosures in Detroit than he is about being crowned the next treasurer.

“I went so far as to tell the selection board, ‘honestly if you like these proposals I’m putting forward, if you find another candidate who has the Wayne County governmental experience to do these things, then we at Loveland will happily support them to execute these programs,’” he says.

Loveland’s first foray into Detroit real estate was a $500 vacant lot, purchased through the 2010 auction, on the city’s east side. It put 10,000 square inches up for sale at $1 apiece and called it “inchvesting,” which was basically purchasing a key to a social network of people who also owned inches on the lot. (In conversation, Paffendorf casually refers to those halcyon days as his “micro real estate” phase.) “It was very much like an improv art project to see what people would make of it,” he says. Some longtime residents raised eyebrows at the SimCity-esque project (the $1 investment was akin to buying a brick at a new ballpark or naming a star) but with it, Loveland was born.

Paffendorf co-founded the company with his now girlfriend Mary Lorene Carter, a Michigan native who worked for the Wayne County library system before she met Paffendorf, and Larry Sheradon, a developer he met on Twitter. They weren’t sure what, exactly, Loveland was. An art project? A nonprofit? One thing they did know: They were interested in land use and they were interested in Detroit. And, while it may have bordered on the absurd, their virtual world in a vacant lot on the east side proved to be more than just a novelty.

“The idea was just, get off the inch system,” Paffendorf, who is thoughtful, animated and eerily precise with his words tells me. “Rather than who owns the inches, and stories about the robot factory that you’re going to build on your three inches of virtual land. Just replace it with reality. We had enough people who were intrigued by the micro real estate stuff and heavily encouraged us to stop fucking around with something so playful, when we could do something so much more impactful.”

But if inchvesting was essentially playing a video game in a blighted city, at least the interactive social maps they had built to run the network were very powerful. So, in 2011, they built out an interface that mapped the entirety of the 2011 Wayne County tax foreclosure auction and called it Why Don’t We Own This?.

“Every community consists of properties that have owners, that have zoning, taxes,” Paffendorf says, explaining the impetus behind Why Don’t We Own This?. “The city carefully calculates and adjusts these taxes. People want to pay the right amount of money to have services delivered to them. It’s an information problem.”

The growing popularity of Why Don’t We Own This? during the 2011 and 2012 tax auction dovetailed with a greater interest in Detroit from developers, real estate speculators and, yes, young creative types looking for cheaper rent. The city’s online portal was practically useless. But Why Don’t We Own This? tracked back taxes and previous owners, and had open forums for discussing the structural integrity of houses alongside Google Street View pictures. It made it much easier for prospective bidders to know what they were getting into, and for underwater homeowners — and the nonprofits helping them — to collect information about property taxes and foreclosure status.

“Having the Loveland gang doing their site has made it possible to listen to the comments people have made relative to the auction process,” David Szymanski, the former chief deputy county treasurer and one of Paffendorf’s seven rivals for the interim opening, says in an email. “Those comments helped drive changes we incorporated into the process making it much more user friendly.”

It was, Paffendorf says, “almost like the first big picture of Detroit from space.”

One of Loveland’s maps, created using public data and powered by the startup’s signature interface. (Credit: Loveland)

Connecting the Dots

Outsiders have a difficult time wrapping their minds around the tax auction, which has become an annual fall rite since the state overhauled the delinquent tax foreclosure process in 1999.

Before Public Act 123 was passed, tax liens on parcels were offered up for auction. Now, property owners who are three years delinquent on property taxes are foreclosed on by the county treasurer. Then the deeds are sold outright at auction. In Wayne County that consists of two rounds. First, the county aims to sell parcels for the amount owed in back taxes. Next, properties with no takers at that price are auctioned off to the highest bidder, with the bidding starting at $500. (That’s where the oft-misrepresented $500 Detroit house myth originated.) Live auctions were standard — we’re talking Dust Bowl-era madness — until 2009, when the process moved online.

It’s worth re-emphasizing that, of the 24,950 Detroit properties in this fall’s auction, 8,069 had people living in them. And while some critics have quietly placed blame on poor budgeting or negligent homeowners, many folks are caught in the crosshairs of a city where real estate often has no laws, leases or legitimate landlords.

Just ask Crystal Fischer. She found her Brightmoor home, on the northwest side, in early 2013 through a friend. When the foreclosure notices started showing up last fall, her landlord said he would fix things. But when the letters kept coming and she confronted him, he disappeared.

“He was basically a fraud,” Fischer tells me. He knew the previous owner of the house, a woman who had simply given up and left the state. So he swooped in and rented it out to Fischer knowing he had three years until the property was forfeited to the county. Fischer, who does full-time clerical work for a temporary staffing company, was paying him $500 a month that went straight to his pocket. This is not uncommon in Detroit, where the surplus of unoccupied homes and distrust of government has led to a more DIY approach to renting.

The information gap between the county treasurer’s office and tax delinquent homeowners can leave people out on the streets. Fischer was packing her bags before Michele Oberholtzer, a housing activist who runs the Tricycle Collective, a group that works with families losing their homes, showed up on her porch.

“They were like a godsend,” Fischer says. “And they came and spread new life at the last moment. They showed up like angels. I told them so fast, you need to go and tell everybody cause there’s a lot of people that don’t know the options out there.”

Oberholtzer worked as a surveyor for Loveland before she struck out on her own. (It was an amicable split. Oberholtzer was more interested in activism, Loveland was more interested in data. She still plays on a soccer team with Paffendorf.) She had taken an interest in homes that had clear signs of children living in them while surveying — tricycles, toys, dolls.

“What happened frequently is that people who lived in the occupied homes I was surveying would confront me about what I was doing, ‘why are you taking a picture of my home,‘” she tells me over coffee at her apartment in the city’s New Center neighborhood. “I was finding myself going home every night and looking up information so I could answer the questions, and I was frustrated with how difficult it was to find the answers.”

Housing activist Michele Oberholtzer talks with June Walker on Walker’s front step. Walker lost the title to her home when it was foreclosed on in 2012. She continues to live there as she navigates the bureaucratic hurdles of buying it back.

The Tricycle Collective is a perfect example of using Loveland’s data to affect real people’s lives. Oberholtzer zeroes in on neighborhoods and uses Loveland’s maps to find homes that are in the auction and then goes and canvases those neighborhoods to talk with residents — preferably those with children — about their options.

“In the same way that the auction is only online and is therefore limited in access, so is that [Loveland’s] information,” she says. “So part of what I do is use that level of data heavily to connect the dots and to bring it down to a human level, house by house. I translate the dots on the map to interaction and conversation with the human.”

Oberholtzer worked with Fischer to purchase her home in the second round of the auction last month for $500. The same monthly rent she was paying her fake landlord.

The Dark Ages Of Misunderstanding

The county treasurer’s office fully acknowledges that, yes, people are living in these homes on the auction block. But they haven’t done much of anything to remedy the situation. Last year, the state legislature green-lighted a few last-minute programs to get tax delinquent homeowners into payment plans. But, every October, owner-occupants are routinely bidding against developers and out-of-state speculators for their homes.

In late 2013, Loveland and Data Driven Detroit (a local data services company), along with the help of $1.5 million from private donors and foundations, set out to survey all of Detroit’s 378,723 parcels across 139 square miles. Motor City Mapping was, as official materials explained, “a comprehensive effort to digitize Detroit’s property information and create clear communication channels back and forth between the public, the government and city service providers.”

It was a more public-facing, useful and thorough version of Why Don’t We Own This?. During the 2013-14 winter, the snowiest in the city’s history, they canvassed every parcel of the city with smartphones, surveying blight, foreclosures and vacancy. Surveyors would go to a parcel, snap a picture, assess the structure (good, fair, poor or in need of demolition), and deduce whether or not the property was occupied — then send that info back to what they called Mission Control.

All of the data was amassed and input into interactive, digestible maps at Loveland HQ. Every piece of publicly available parcel data in Detroit — from previous owners to back taxes owed — was now accessible to the public.

“The purity of the concept for Motor City Mapping was to end once and for all the dark ages of misunderstanding about what was happening to Detroit’s properties,” Paffendorf says over lunch near Loveland’s office in the city’s central business district. “Have a system that was constantly updated with a focus on occupancy, vacancy and things that needed to be healed. Something that’s collapsed, it needs to be removed. It’s something rehab-able, it should be rehabbed. If there’s something wildly uncared for, it should be understood and it should be a natural resource. It’s the crust of peeling landscape, and critically making all that information available to the public.”

The Detroit Land Bank Authority, a quasi-governmental agency that auctions off homes that aren’t purchased in the county’s auction, used Motor City Mapping to figure out what properties were suitable for renovation and which needed demolition. The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, a group organized by the Obama administration, used the survey’s results as well.

“That was the golden age of Detroit data collection,” Paffendorf says. “That’s when everyone was galvanized around the mission.”

Fast-forward to this September, when Loveland released a report on fires and arson in Detroit that discovered over 1,000 Detroit residents were displaced in the first seven months of 2015 because of fires. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who has been icy toward Loveland’s push for open data, called the report — for which Loveland sent out surveyors across the entire 139 square miles of Detroit — “unbelievably inaccurate.”

Activists and lawmakers I spoke with in Detroit scoffed at this rebuttal from City Hall. Nearly everyone admitted that while there is the potential for subjective human error in Loveland’s surveying (they do have people out there snapping pictures of charred buildings, after all), the company’s standards and surveying practices are sound and offer a good service to the city. I even used the app myself, driving across the city’s east side with Loveland staffers. You can’t just report a fire and then it goes straight to the Internet. The information is vetted deeply before their reports are released.

And besides, Duggan should have been thanking Loveland rather than going on the defensive to control the message. Loveland’s fire report found that there were 1,653 structure fires between January 1st and July 31st this year. Duggan was adamant that there were 2,256. (Paffendorf says their data did not include fires that left no damage, like grease fires.) The Mayor had an opportunity to discuss how fires — a longtime issue in Detroit — were down on his watch. Meanwhile, firefighters have quietly voiced support to staffers within Loveland’s ranks.

Paffendorf is quick to dispel any notion of discord between Loveland and City Hall. “We’re all allies working together on this problem,” he says. “The Mayor’s an ass kicker. He really wants to bring back talent and capacity within city government.”

And though the Mayor, whose office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article over the course of six weeks, has a slightly antagonistic relationship with Loveland, he did admit that it’s used in the offices at City Hall when I ambushed him at a post-ribbon-cutting press scrum. When I asked him if his staffers used Loveland’s tools, he replied curtly before abruptly ending the press conference, “Oh yeah. Absolutely,” he said. “They do good work.”

There’s No Silver Bullet

“There is not a solution. That is the first thing I always say,” Eric Dueweke, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan and longtime Detroit resident, tells me. “But there are many things that could help.”

Chief among them: property value reassessment. It’s an entirely unsexy political issue that doesn’t grab headlines but could dramatically change the tenor and outcome of the annual tax auction. Many Detroit properties are grossly overassessed, which plagues prospective homeowners trying to secure loans and longtime owners paying inflated tax bills. The Detroit News found a man on the east side whose home was assessed at 44 times its purchase price.

“A lot of folks, probably way more than half the folks in foreclosure, a significant part of the reason why they’re in foreclosure is assessment problems,” says Ted Phillips, executive director of the United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), a housing advocacy group that helps keep people in their homes. “We know the mayor would probably disagree with that now.”

Duggan has acknowledged this is an issue and is in the process of reassessing the city’s properties — he told the Detroit Free Press that the assessor’s office should have new valuations in “about a year” — but many, including Dueweke, have questioned why it’s taking so long.

“The City of Detroit has not done that. They haven’t really. And Duggan says he’s in process of doing it, but it’s not clear to me why that should take two years to do,” he says. “If Loveland can go out and survey the whole city in eight weeks or six weeks, however long it took them to do it, then I just don’t see why the city can’t.”

Paffendorf wrote about reassessment in his 5-Point Plan for County Treasurer.

“To get at the root of the tax delinquency and foreclosure problem, the treasurer must encourage and assist struggling communities to reassess their property taxes in a highly public manner, making the formulas, processes and services being funded clear,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Most notably, Detroit’s property taxes are notoriously overassessed, and while there is a reassessment underway, it is not effectively public, not understood, and not likely to be accurate moving into the future.”

Duggan’s office did not reply to numerous requests, via both phone and email, about reassessment.

Dueweke thinks the city should take it one step further and consider changing the way taxes are assessed. “One idea is to have a higher property tax rate for vacant properties than for occupied properties,” he says. “For vacant lots and vacant buildings, charge folks who want to be speculators a higher tax rate. Right now there’s little disincentive to speculating. And so let’s make people who are speculators, let’s tax that activity.”

Washington, D.C., implemented a similar tax structure in 2011. Vacant properties are taxed at $5 per $100 of assessed value, as opposed to the standard $.85, and blighted properties are charged at $10. It’s had mixed success returning vacant and blighted properties to productive use. Washington City Paper reported that, of the $10.3 million levied on blighted properties in 2012, only $3 million were paid. But given the number of blighted properties and the large presence of speculators in the Wayne County tax auction — in 2013, one developer bought nearly every parcel in Detroit’s North Corktown neighborhood — restructuring the tax code might help.

But even a new tax code won’t keep speculators at bay. Anyone can create a shell company or spin off a new LLC and purchase homes. Phillips warns about speculators who simply purchase the homes in the auction and then sell them back to the renter — someone like Crystal Fischer — at wildly inflated prices.

“I had one a few years ago, a 97-year-old woman. She didn’t see us until after the auction. She turned up at the eviction stage. House got bought for $1,300,” he says, his voice rising in anger and disgust. “She comes over to file in January for her 65-year-old disabled daughter that she’s taking care of and the buyer wanted $19,900 for the property. We negotiated it down to $13,000 and she got her home back. That’s ridiculous! $1,300 to $13,000! That’s the kind of profits these guys make and they did not do a thing to the property. They didn’t slap a coat of paint on the outside of it.”

These Problems Spread Like Diseases

On an unseasonably warm and cloudless September day, John Grover, Loveland’s lead surveyor, picked me up outside the company’s office in his black Ford Crown Victoria. “Everyone’s got a Crown Vic around here,” said Grover, who is soft spoken with a long beard and shoulder-length hair, when I mentioned that he looked like an undercover cop.

Grover is Loveland’s in-house Detroit encyclopedia. His knowledge is deep and peculiar, with an eye toward how taxation, education, blight and arson have impacted the city. He could tell you about the history of every single Detroit public school and how it individually affected each neighborhood (he’s on a first-name basis with the microfiche folks at the public library), or about the specifics of a recent house fire on the city’s west side (he catalogs scanner calls). He spends so much time driving around the city and has such a detailed knowledge of the housing stock and how quickly blocks can go from lively to vacant, that he will point out homes that were occupied as recently as a month ago. He’s the kind of dude who goes on vacation to Gary, Indiana.

Since he joined Loveland in August 2014, Grover has been in charge of the company’s surveying and using the data to build out maps and larger projects, like this fall’s fire report. He works with the humans who go out into the world with smartphones to work on whatever it is that Loveland’s analyzing. (Their most recent project? Mapping all the medicinal marijuana shops in Detroit.) Some people wonder, as is commonplace with most tech startups, what the hell it is Loveland does. The company is a fixture in the daily newspapers, whether it’s reporting on fires or blight, so there is a level of familiarity. They’re known in town simply as “the data guys.”

But when Grover drove me around the city, along with Paffendorf and Loveland Chief Product Officer Alex Alsup, it became more clear not only what they do on a day-to-day basis, but also how the company could work to help other cities.

Paffendorf estimates they have roughly half the country mapped. The four-person parcel prospecting team spends their days scouring publicly available data and reaching out to city assessors and municipalities. The goal is to eventually map every single parcel on the entire planet.

“We’ve got one planet, 25,000 miles around, 7 billion people, 170 countries or thereabouts. Our country has got 50 states, 3,000 counties, 20,000 cities and towns,” Paffendorf says, his voice rising with pure joy. “Within those cities and towns there’s neighborhoods, there’s census tracts, there are zip codes. There’s various boundaries, incomes. Within those there’s — drum roll — an essential unit of how man owns and uses the Earth.”

What exactly does Loveland intend to do with all this information? Sell it.

The future of the company rests on Site Control, the company’s flagship software that Motor City Mapping was built on. (“A Russian real estate agent told us that Site Control sounds like a person who will shoot you for stepping across an international boundary,” Paffendorf says, laughing.) The maps are intuitive, user friendly and easy to look at. If you have a data set — say, tax delinquency — you can input the data set into Site Control and it will spit out a handsome, sharable map.

“It’s sort of like Google Docs for maps,” Mary Lorene Carter says.

Think of it this way: If you had input data about tax foreclosures or publicly available mortgage records in 2006 or 2007, it would have looked like a horrible X-ray of the state of the country. You would have seen the housing market on the brink.

“If you had a national dashboard of every property in the country, and publicly available data on foreclosures, sheriff sales, tax payments and who was behind on their taxes, you would have seen that coming,” Alsup says. “These problems spread like disease. If you can identify them quickly, if you can see the indicators of them before they really start to develop and metastasize, you can get ahead of them.”

Loveland is up against legacy mapping software companies like ESRI, which is commonly used in most municipalities, but the team remains confident that their product is better, faster and more affordable. (They have tiered pricing structures for everyone from massive city agencies to block clubs.) Jim Rokakis, vice president of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, an Ohio nonprofit, agrees. Over the last few years the Land Conservancy has surveyed eight cities across Ohio for blight and foreclosure. For the last two cities — Cleveland and Dayton, the biggest of all eight — they switched over from ESRI to Loveland.

“Our GIS people put together a neat program, based on the ESRI platform,” Rokakis says. “Loveland does a lot more. It’s a lot more sophisticated. It uses the cloud, it does great report making capacity. It’s just much more nimble, it’s more agile.”

Rokakis feels like the data Loveland produces could be a huge asset for city, state and federal lawmakers.

“If you have limited resources, and you have to make decisions about how you’re going to spend,” he continues. “You just go out and willy-nilly pick and choose off the page based on who called the local council person the most? It’d be nice if you could put together a system that enables you to spend limited resources where they have the most impact, right? Then also being able to justify that decision. Explain to folks out there, this is why we’re not here. We’ll get there eventually, but we have to go here for these reasons. Being able to come up with some systematic and methodical way of spending these resources. I don’t think you could do that without good data.”

Just last month local TV reporter and noted muckraker Charlie LeDuff questioned Detroit’s use of demolition funds. Days after LeDuff’s report, it was announced the city would receive $21 million more in blight demolition money from the federal government.

It’s widely accepted that blight is a magnet for crime. But Rokakis plans to use Site Control to map crime over the blight and foreclosures survey to illustrate how serious the issue is. “We’re done with the Cleveland survey, so we’re going to be overlaying crime data,” he explains. “And I think we’re going to prove with certainty that where there are vacant properties there are certain kinds of horrific crimes that occur.”

The Western Reserve Land Conservancy is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to adopting Site Control. While there has been an uptick in interest, it’s difficult to convince antiquated city agencies to switch from a current platform (such as ESRI) to a newer, albeit cheaper, one.

“They’re still trying to move from a paper-based, clipboard-driven society,” Carter says.

Paffendorf laughs. “Cities have no money and they’re slow.”

It Don’t Look That Bad

Crystal Fischer was stuck with a scummy sham of a landlord. But June Walker, who runs a prison re-entry program for a local church, got trapped in a bureaucratic mess and what feels to her like an unending roll of red tape.

Walker had planned to repurchase her Detroit home, which she lost to tax foreclosure in 2012, in last year’s tax auction. Until she discovered, via Oberholtzer and the Tricycle Collective, that her home was in a blight bundle along with 6,334 other properties.

Starting with the 2014 auction, the county bundled thousands of properties in an attempt to ward off speculators and get the properties into the hands of the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Bidders would have to pony up millions of dollars to purchase a literal bundle of thousands of vacant lots, fire-damaged buildings and homes in various states of disrepair. The idea was that the Land Bank is better equipped than the city to sort through the bundle and figure out what should be demolished and what should be auctioned. (The Land Bank has more stringent auction guidelines — owners must produce a certificate of occupancy within six months or risk forfeiting the house back to the Land Bank.) Last year they deemed 944 properties suitable for auction, 2,256 suitable as demolition candidates and 3,164 as vacant lots.

“I know it looks bad,” Walker says about her house, where her daughter lived with her before she left for Eastern Michigan University. “But it don’t look that bad.”

June Walker in her home.

Walker has been in limbo for years trying to get the deed and clean title for the home she still lives in. Last year she even attended homebuyer education classes at U-Snap-Bac, a local nonprofit, which can sometimes help speed up getting a deed on a foreclosed home. (A land deed record I obtained showed the house was still under Walker’s name — though it had been foreclosed on — but county land records are notoriously behind, which only helps to illustrate the issues homeowners face when navigating Wayne County’s system.)

This is the kind of arrangement that drives Phillips, who at the helm of the UCHC has successfully bid on more than 1,600 properties to help keep occupants in their homes since 2010, absolutely mad. “The whole point of the Land Bank was government’s not working, has too many regulations, you can’t just work with people and do the right thing, you got to go through all these regs,” he says, “but when you set up the Land Bank, then dammit, they’re there to do justice.”

Craig Fahle, director of public affairs at the Land Bank, is quick to point out that the Land Bank hasn’t evicted these people. (Walker’s situation isn’t rare. Other homeowners have found their homes in the blight bundle.) The Land Bank has done an excellent job of returning properties to productive use — they have sold 2,700 vacant side lots, closed successfully on 550 auction homes, and transferred another 200 to nonprofit and faith-based community groups. And late last month they instituted a pilot program that will allow occupants of Land Bank-owned homes — an estimated 4,500 Land Bank properties are occupied — to purchase them for $1,000.

“Our population is declining, we need to build a population,” Fahle says. “And kicking people out of their houses is not going to do it.”

It’s a Feedback Loop

This year’s auction may be over, but foreclosure notices for next year are already being distributed. Roughly 60,000 homes are currently being noticed for foreclosure, and owners have until March to pay back taxes or enter into a payment plan. And, according to Loveland’s data, over 40,000 are estimated to be occupied. Making matters worse, nearly one in six of the 5,773 occupied homes that entered the 2014 auction are now vacant.

“It’s a feedback loop,” Paffendorf says of the constant flow of homes in and out of tax foreclosure. “It’s back in the system, and it just kind of costs everybody more time and treasury to do it.”

Most everyone I spoke with in Detroit, from activists to policymakers, agreed that it’d be ideal if the county stopped auctioning off occupied homes. But, until state law is changed, any home — occupied or vacant — that is three years delinquent on its taxes will be entered into the auction.

In the meantime, the folks at Loveland are still fighting for a seat at the table. “I fully in my American mutt nature of idealism, really truly believe that more open access to information is how a democracy ultimately functions,” Paffendorf says.

Alsup, who, as chief product officer is in charge of bringing Loveland to the masses, was a bit more direct.

“We’re in this to offer solutions,” he says. “You want to talk about how to stop tax foreclosure, you want to talk about how to stop losing population to fires — let’s have the conversation. Cause we have pretty fucking good ideas for all of that stuff.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Deadspin, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among others.

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Michelle & Chris Gerard are photographers residing and working in Detroit. The passion they have for the city has led them to work with many Detroit businesses, non-profits, publications, and create storytelling images on a daily basis.

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