Detroit Paradox: People Who Need Houses and Houses that Need People

abandoned housing in Detroit

Detroit    Rarely is there a day in organizing when each meeting seems to be with one person after another who is smart as a whip, committed all in, and shoulder to the wheel, as we found in Detroit, but rarely is there also a day in which each story sometimes seemed a version of Sisyphus pushing the rocks up the hill and watching them roll down again.

Some of the rocks were avalanches I knew too well. Ted Phillips, director and litigator of the United Community Housing Coalition, stepped into a meeting that our ACORN Home Savers Campaign was having with Michele Oberholtzer, the shrewd, brilliant, and tough-as-nails director of the UCHC Foreclosure Project. Ted has years in the saddle and though we were deep in the weeds with Michele on potential strategy and tactics to allow lower income families to own – or keep – their homes, I couldn’t resist asking him what had happened to the old Detroit homesteading program that ACORN had fought and won over a decade of struggle. Ted knew exactly what I was talking about and quickly responded that it “had died because of governmental incompetence.” What we had won, only after Coleman Young left as Mayor after years of fights and squatting, was a compromise where a family would indeed get the house for $100 or so, but it required sign-off from several levels of government including the city, county, and possibly the state on adjudicated property, and essentially government writ large and small couldn’t effectively coordinate. Michele shook her head in disbelief, saying that could have been great. I thought to myself that perhaps we could have saved it if, big if, we would have had the resources to keep someone on staff who was bird dogging the bureaucrats 24/7. Michele had been telling us the complex lengths her program went in order to navigate the obstacles to allow people to keep their houses from auctions to governmental first refusals, so she knew what she was talking about.

In another meeting we got a short course in municipal and state financing that forced so many homeowners into auction because of the byzantine costs of living in Detroit. Property taxes, he told us, were the highest percentage to value in the country, but because of various austerity measures imposed by the state when Detroit when bankrupt, there is also no practicable way forward immediately to abate the levels without toppling the fragile city financing structure. We raised the questions of how it was possible to justify either spending Community Development money by the city or banks getting Community Reinvestment Act credits for developments in the downtown corridor while the neighborhoods starved, and heads nodded on the waivers that made it happen. Others talked to us about the unsustainable cost of even living in Detroit when property taxes were added to the cost of home insurance, water bills were soaring under new regulations, and in Motor City car insurance is easily $400 per month we were told. One person told us of being responsible for a city program design where the city lacked the money to actually implement any of the design she was producing.

On our pursuit of rent-to-own companies we found more names to add to our rogue’s gallery. We also heard of some promising handles that might save some owner-occupants in such agreements if we could get them into the landlord-tenant court where they could make the case that they had a land contract under Michigan law.

Rocks might be rolling down some of the hills, but the more we talked to people, the more we were on the team that was trying to mine those rocks to make a difference in Detroit.

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Hey, Google, Weren’t Happy with Congress? Well, Meet ACORN!

New Orleans    Recent years have been abundantly kind for those in big tech, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and the like. Money flowing like water. Arrogance and pomposity unchallenged by empty slogans disguised behind corporate speak claiming interest in the common good. Recently they have had some harder days testifying before Congressional committees and bipartisan approbation over their clueless handling of Russian manipulation during the 2016 election and their tepid and dilatory response to the problems. Heaven forbid, rather than simply collecting contributions and dining with tech lobbyists, they may actually suggest some regulations, nothing too big mind you, but maybe identifying who paid for political ads, similar to the requirements for newspaper and television ads. No holding your breath now, we may need you later, but we’ll see.

If Google representatives thought their shoes were too tight in Washington, DC, they got an even ruder awakening in Toronto recently as they began their charm offensive with their subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, recently winning a big contract to develop a huge piece of prime real estate with promises of creating a so-called “city of the future” with endless geehaws and high-tech bells and whistles. Or as a summary description from the Canadian Broadcast Corporation reported,

Sidewalk’s vision for the site focuses on improving energy use, housing affordability and transportation. A 189-page document detailing some options includes the use of self-driving shuttles, buildings that are cheap to build (potentially even made of timber) and easy to modify, and a “people-centred” streetscape that’s dominated by bike paths and walkways.”

As discussed previously, the Google tone deaf notion of housing “affordability” is using tech tools to reduce the cost of construction. As they used to say on the oil fields when I worked there, “that’s engineers for you,” and the same seems true for the tech types.

But, ACORN gave Google a special Toronto welcome as reported by the CBC:

ACORN calls for plans to address housing ‘crisis’

Before the doors opened, anti-poverty activists with ACORN rallied outside, demanding the project focus on “deep affordability.”

“We are in a crisis in the city, a housing crisis,” said Alejandra Ruiz Vargas.

She says the group hasn’t been consulted on the project so far, and only received an invite to Waterfront Toronto’s sold-out event the day before. She also questions how a Silicon Valley spinoff defines affordable housing.

“What is affordable for rich people?” she said.

Inside the venue, Doctoroff highlighted affordable housing developments built in New York City when he was the deputy mayor (an appointed position under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.) He also praised Ruiz Vargas for taking a stand, telling her: “I just want you to know how much we respect that.”

However, others also questioned Sidewalk’s commitment to affordability, with one noting some of New York’s failings and also another pointing out that Toronto already has housing and poverty reduction plans.

“Welcome to Toronto, the city of many strategies and very little money,” she told Doctoroff.

Google is trying to put sugar in our coffee already, but it will take a lot more than some sugar and respect to satisfy ACORN and its members – and people throughout Toronto. These “consultations” won’t be a quick cup of coffee, but concerted negotiations with real demands. Or as ACORN leader, Alejandra Ruiz Vargas, said, “Welcome to Toronto.”

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