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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It Takes a Village, but Do We All Have One?

Old School New Orleans Mortgage Records

Old School New Orleans Mortgage Records

New Orleans    These are the dog days. Walking the dog or loading the car means a full-on sweat. A cold shower is delayed until minutes before the dash to work. Unsurprisingly, fingers find themselves checking temperature listings in Wyoming and Ontario. Just saying.

Meanwhile the tasks of the day can’t be avoided or delayed any longer.

It turned out once I started opening all her mail over the last many months that my mother had not been getting the homestead property tax exemption which like the NFL Saints and Mardi Gras is one of the sacred traditions of Louisiana. Going to the elected tax assessor’s office in the swelter of August also used to be a sacred tradition when we had eight of them as people would line up for hours and days to appeal for a reduction. I can remember in high school hearing my dad talk about the experience more than once. So though I started trying to deal with straightening the mess out for her in January and came close to getting it done in February, the window for appeals was open now in August, so the clock was ticking.

Nothing is easy about the process. You have to have a current utility bill and 18 months’ worth of records. Of course my mother’s name was not on the bill, only my father’s, so there’s that. The power of attorney has to be recorded at the conveyance office at the clerk of court’s office across from City Hall, but of course when I present myself they assume that what the assessor needs is a copy of the bill of sale which lists my mother of course by her maiden name, which she hasn’t enjoyed for over 70 years.

What year did they buy their house, I’m asked? I’m positive it was after I had moved out of the city. We looked in a half-dozen old tax record books in a separate room for that year, but no luck, so that meant going over to City Hall to another office to find the right book and page, since they could find the records by the address. Computers? What computers! You had better hurry I was advised. They are only open up 1 PM for the public. What?!? But, what a surprise, the woman couldn’t have been nicer, and was able to find the record in no time. Hey, you want a copy as well, it’s only a dollar? You bet, especially if I never have to come back!

Then it’s to the assessor’s office where I steeled myself for the crowds and the wait. I walked in and asked if I was in the right place. No one was there. I took a number as instructed, they told me to sit in the front row, but I was alone. I asked the super friendly receptionist, and with a smile she said, yes, times had changed, no one could believe the crowds were gone thanks to on-line appeals, automatic computerized property appraisals, and only one assessor now. But, no, my paperwork wasn’t right still. The assessor’s office didn’t need the proof from the property records at the conveyance office, they needed me to record the power of attorney to sit in front of them for my mother in the first place.

So I run back across the street to the clerk’s office. $133 later,  I have the power of attorney recorded as I stood in a bank of desks and listened to the four women steadily handling paperwork, kidding each other about #7 didn’t know this procedure, desk #4 will help you, I’m too busy, and so forth with a machine like efficiency and a sense of humor unexpected in the bowels of the bureaucracy. What the heck, while I’m waiting the friendly lady at City Hall said I could get a copy of the original bill of sale now that I know my steel trap memory of when my parents bought their house was 1000% wrong and off by several years. What was I thinking?!?

Then back to the Assessor’s office. Back to the right desk. Whoops, the power of attorney though crystal clear that it covers all real estate doesn’t work for them because they suddenly want it to specifically name the address of my mother’s home where she spends 24 hours of every day.

Was I going to have to start all over with the clock ticking on the appeal? For all of the helpful people I had conversed to with my cause over these hours, now I was full-on reptilian, as my daughter cautions against continually as my inner organizer erupts. In February,  I had been sent the adjustment forms after calling. My mother had signed them, but then I had been told I needed five years of utility records, I thought, and couldn’t get them, which is why I was there now. Over the divider sat the woman who had sent me the forms it turned out, which luckily I had brought with me. I kept talking. They called supervisors who had authorized sending the previous forms. Maybe they could simply check my mother’s signature on the POA against her earlier signature and accept those forms? Talk, talk, talk, and finally where there was no justice, there was mercy, the forms were accepted with a lengthy scolding.

I walked out relieved and the super friendly assessor’s receptionist chatted me up as I walked out about how they wanted to make people happy. I went back to the counter and told them how close it had come before I reverted to another of my daughter’s wiles and went full meltdown, “crying Yankee,” as we call it.

It takes a village, but I couldn’t help thinking what might have happened to someone else and whether they would have ever gotten the exemption or qualified for the refund. I’m not so sure.

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