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.


Nice Surprises in the City of Milwaukee

Milwaukee       Before taking my traveling road show from Madison to Milwaukee, I spent some time in the ACORN archives that are part of the Social Change Collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society.  Perhaps four years ago, WHS archivists had picked up another 35 cartons of material from our hall in Baton Rouge where we were storing a ton of stuff that had been in our various New Orleans local and national offices.  I met with one of the archivists who had recently finished accessing, filing, and sorting through the most recent bunch.  He claimed it “filled in some missing pieces,” and that was good news for all of us.

I had been naïve in my first visit to the archives some thirty months ago, thinking I could buzz through the collection.  Over the week I visited, I may have jumped around in thirty or forty boxes.  It was a start, but I was most impressed at how much I had underestimated the task, especially since I was looking for old strategy and program memoranda.  There are now 224 cubic feet of paper archives and that means 224 boxes of materials.  Plus, there are more boxes of photographs and hours and hours of video.  That’s a mountain to climb.  I joked leaving that it would take me two or three months to go through all of what they had.  The archivist at the desk, suggested summer was better than the winter.  Indeed!

Once in Milwaukee, I stopped at a coffeehouse nearby the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee where I was due not long afterwards.  Within minutes, a fellow approached me and identified himself as Dan Grandone, a former Gamaliel community organizer, who was going to the event later that day and now ran a leadership development program with a great name:  WILD.  Anytime you can run into random community organizers on the street by chance, take my word, you’re somewhere close to heaven if you want to note this on your GPS.

At the event there was a former ACORN canvasser in Minnesota and a former ACORN organizer for a brief spell in another office.  UM-W Professor Aaron Schutz, my host, cracked that the urban studies department was chock full of ex-ACORN folks.

It gets even better though.  During the call and response after the meeting, one young man spoke up and gave a testimonial to ACORN.  Turns out he had a slew of relatives in the Lower 9thWard of New Orleans, including a sister who said ACORN had helped get her house together after Hurricane Katrina.   Another young man spoke up not long afterwards saying he was a community organizer in the Milwaukee and wanted to know how they could connect with ACORN.  After the meeting, I visited with all three of the delegation and they turned out to be connected to the Amani neighborhood and the Dominican Center.

The Amani neighborhood has seen steady decline in crime since 2005, including another 12 percent decrease in 2017 alone. It’s located between 20th and 27th Streets and between Center St. and Keefe Ave., right in the middle of the 53206-zipcode.  In fact, one experienced organizer told me that this zip code had the highest incarceration rate in Wisconsin, and perhaps the nation, but crime over this period has dropped at almost double the level of the city as a whole.  They want to see how to bring the ACORN Home Savers Campaign to Milwaukee and how to link up.  Yeeha!

It’s these kinds of surprises that keep me hitting the road, rain or shine, sleet or snow, and here there was plenty of the latter, but these kinds of conversations made the sun shine for me.