Detroit Housing Crisis, Progress but a Long Way to Go

Detroit    The panel organized by the Detroit School at the University of Michigan – Dearborn had an ominous title: “Post Crisis Housing Markets and Housing Insecurity.”  In Detroit, not unlike so many other cities around the world now, when you couple “Post Crisis” and “Housing” in the same phrase you are definitely either very hopeful or asking for trouble.  The housing crisis in Detroit as been horrid for half-a-century at the least, so post-crisis referred to the 2008 national meltdown of course.

The crowd on a miserable winter night in Detroit, which is to say, a normal winter night in Detroit, was deeply informed and hugely engaged.  The panel was authoritative.  Christine Macdonald of The Detroit News and Allison Gross of the Free Press had both deeply reported on housing issues, were well versed and knew the players on all sides of the field.  Professor Josh Akers from UM-Dearborn and his colleague Eric Seymour, a PhD now at Brown, had deeply researched the housing market and the level of insecurity for families.  Both had been wildly helpful to the ACORN Home Savers Campaign in getting a handle on companies operating in the margins with sometimes questionable and often predatory products often contributing to housing insecurity.

Professor Akers, as the moderator, gave the background and the numbers of foreclosures, the impact of subprime lending, and the level of continued abandonment were unsettling, no matter how often I had heard them.  The reporters unpacked the impact of recent programs like the “right of first refusal” which allowed the city to pick up homes in foreclosure and potentially offer them back to families at real or current market value, rather than the pre-2008 recession levels.  They shared the problems they faced in keeping these stories flowing in the exhaustion of their editors, and perhaps the public, felt in facing this continual train wreck.  Eric Seymour filled in the gaps that both he and Akers had worked on to supply both reporters and ACORN with the raw data to fuel their reporting and our work.

As Greg Markus, a retired professor and key organizer with Detroit Action Commonwealth, pointed out in the question & answer after the panel, the twin crises of mortgage foreclosures from the banks and tax sales triggered by the government had deepened the crisis in Detroit.  He argued as well that the ACLU suit that upbraided the city for not allowing low income families to take advantage of the tax exemptions that has now slowed the auctions as well as the work being done by reporters, scholars, activists, and community organizations showed real progress moving forward.  Christine Macdonald nodded but pushed back that none of these things repaired the damage to families who had already lost and been ejected from their homes or the permanent scars it created in the neighborhoods.

It was an excellent conversation without real joy.  There is great work happening in Detroit, but too much of the effort for too many decades has been Sisyphisian with the rocks almost getting to the top of the hill, then pushed back down again.  I mentioned a memorandum I had stumbled on in the ACORN archives from 2003 from the Detroit ACORN office on a collaboration with the City and its financing to allow families to rehab houses and then waive taxes and purchase requirements.  Then the numbers of houses abandoned was 30,000.  Now, the land bank alone has perhaps 80,000.

This is where the fight has to be joined, but whether a model for the future that would assure housing stability can be found without a radical rethinking that puts families and not realty interests and developers first is still very much in doubt.

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ACORN Tenants Taking Charge, Running for Seats on the Board in France

Grenoble         Every four years social housing tenants in France have the opportunity to run for seats on the board of their city’s housing authority.  Admittedly, the seats allotted for tenant representation are a minority of the board positions, because in France, as elsewhere, a voice for tenants is preferable to allowing real power for tenants.  From conversations with organizers, leaders, and members of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, in Grenoble and the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers, that may be about to change.  Members of the Alliance have put forth slates of candidates in three different housing districts, two in Grenoble and one in Paris and have begun to campaign in earnest.

In various meetings throughout the week the plan has shaped up.  In Grenoble where the voting pool is 17000 families, we have been wrestling with the mechanics of the election.  There is a voting period of roughly two weeks in which tenants have to return mail ballots to be counted in the election.  A list of tenants is available as well as a map of all buildings in the system, but the exact time of their availability is still uncertain, making it difficult to make a comprehensive week-by-week plan.  Nonetheless, Alliance candidates have an advantage simply because they are running as a team, backed by the organization, and in some cases partnered with a local union as well, but that advantage only works if we are all able to come to consensus on a plan and then do the hard work of campaigning for the almost eight weeks until the voting closes in December.

After conference calls throughout the week, I attended a meeting of the candidates, organizers, and key organizing committee members in a common space meeting room in one of the housing projects of Grenoble Habitat, where over potato chips and apple juice the plans were being hashed out.  Like all campaigns and organizing the focus was first on lists and building an organizing committee.  Regardless of when – or if – a list is supplied by the housing authority, the key first topic on the agenda of the meeting was how to use the list we have and how to build it larger in advance of the election.  In the smaller election, we have 800 names and in the larger one we have closer to 1500.  There was agreement that the committee would divide up the list, report on daily progress, and commit individually to spending 10 hours on the phones to contact all 2300 names in order to reach 800 to 1000.  The objective was to use the calls to identify building representatives as organizing committee members in as many buildings as possible.  Those campaign representatives would commit to circulating the literature, building a list of building tenants, joining the candidates in doorknocking in their building, and organizing a building wide meeting to meet the candidates between now and the election.

The literature drop would be in the following week, and staff and the planning committee committed to developing a week-by-week plan until the election to be discussed and decided on at the regular weekly meeting.  There was agreement that the concentration would first be on identifying and turning out our base to vote before trying to expand to buildings in the suburbs and elsewhere that we had not previously organized.  These elections are decided by only one or two thousand votes, so the GOTV and multiple “touches” to make sure the ballots are filled our correctly and mailed is central to victory.

This is the first time the organization has embarked on an election campaign of any kind, so it’s exciting and heady stuff.  The one thing that is certain is that the leadership and organization will be stronger once the votes are counted, win, lose or draw.  The other thing that is clear will be that if the Alliance/ACORN members are elected, change is coming to housing authorities in Grenoble and Aubervilliers as tenants join their voices together to create power on the boards that will not be denied.

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Please enjoy Southern State of Mine by Sugarcane Jane.

Sarah Borges & The Broken Singles’ Get as Gone Can Get.

Thanks to KABF.

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