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To mark the publication of We Live Here, a graphic biography of Detroit Eviction Defense written by Jeffrey Wilson and illustrated by Bambi Kramer, we are proud to share Wilson’s introductory note, in which he offers a history of housing in Detroit and the specific methods that banks, corporations, and collections agencies work to evict or otherwise displace longterm residents.


SOLIDARITY AND HOME DEFENSE
THE CASE OF DETROIT

By Jeffrey Wilson

This comic centers on the fourth anniversary celebration of Detroit Eviction Defense (DED). During the festivities, members recounted their stories fighting housing dispossession. In doing so, they offer a model of place-based struggle that has won some eighty homes back from the brink of eviction. Emerging out of the Occupy Movement of 2011, DED is a grassroots coalition of homeowners, anarchists, faith-based activists, union members, and community advocates. To understand DED’s strategies, it is helpful to have a clear picture of the city’s housing history and modes of eviction. 

DISPOSSESSION BY THE NUMBERS 

Housing displacement in Detroit typically takes two forms: mortgage and/or tax foreclosure. A mortgage foreclosure happens when a financial institution takes possession of a property for nonpayment and is the central focus of this book. Tax foreclosure, detailed in the appendix, is when the local municipality takes possession of a property for three consecutive years of nonpayment and subsequently auctions the house, more often than not to real estate speculators. 

Between 2005–2013 Detroit recorded nearly 70,000 mortgage foreclosures impacting approximately 30 percent of residential properties (Akers & Seymour, 2019). One activist describes these mortgage foreclosures and the subsequent fallout as a “hurricane without water” (Interview, 2016). The sentiment seems correct and the problem grows significantly when taking mortgage and tax foreclosures together. Between 2005 and 2015, 1 in 3 properties in the city faced either a mortgage or tax foreclosure (Kurth, 2015). Approximately 160,000 foreclosures were executed, impacting 120,000 homes or 48 percent of all residential properties. Of these homes, 27,000 experienced a kind of double dispossession of a mortgage foreclosure and then a tax foreclosure (Akers & Seymour, 2019).

While mortgage foreclosures have devastated individual families, some of these properties also cost the city millions. As the Detroit News reported, nearly 56 percent of these mortgage-foreclosed homes were in some state of disrepair as of 2015, with nearly 13,000 slated for demolition, costing Detroit $200 million (Kurth, 2015). 

Mortgage foreclosures in Detroit are not isolated, but are built upon a frenzy of subprime lending. In the four years leading up to the housing market crash of 2008, nearly $4 billion in predatory loans was injected into the city’s housing market. Such lending practices are a contemporary iteration of what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has termed “predatory inclusion.” The fair housing era facilitated more robust access to the housing market for many African Americans. Yet this was not the end of discrimination or segregation. Black people continued to pay exorbitant rates and face unequal terms for housing that was often of substandard quality, as Taylor comments. This inclusion was another way that “Black bodies become vessels through which racial capital extracts value” (Denvir, 2020). Detroit before the 2008 market crash is a reminder of the impacts of predatory inclusion. While subprime lending averaged 24 percent of the national market, a kind of predatory inclusion drove rates in Detroit to an average 68 percent in 2005. In some targeted neighborhoods this number rose to 80 percent of all mortgages (Kurth & MacDonald, 2015). 

While the pre-2008 mortgage regime produced inclusionary practices, the post housing market crash strengthened exclusionary practices. A Bridge Michigan analysis of mortgages found that in 2007 African Americans received 75 percent of mortgage loans in Detroit but by 2017 this decreased to 48 percent, despite the fact that Black people make up nearly 80 percent of the city's population. White people comprised only 10 percent of Detroit’s population but received 17 percent of loans in 2007 and 58 percent in 2017. Several Detroit neighborhoods, which had once generated 600 mortgages in 2007, produced zero in 2017 (Wilkinson, 2019). Homes are still being purchased in Detroit, but for many residents nontraditional and much riskier arrangements such as land contracts or rent-to-own are the only avenues for homeownership. Housing advocates estimate that 1 in 10 evictions result from land contracts, yet these numbers might be much higher as such agreements are not required to be registered by the city (Einhorn & Mondry, 2021).

The waning of mortgage foreclosures by the mid-2010s was followed by a series of catastrophic tax foreclosures. Approximately 100,000 tax foreclosures were triggered in the city between 2011 and 2015 (Atuahene, 2020). The peak was 24,793 foreclosures occurring in 2015 (Aguilar, 2020). In tax foreclosure, homes that are behind three years are then sent to tax auction. These auctions have moved online since 2015, facilitating speculators from around the world in buying properties in Detroit, as the appendix of this book outlines. 

Tax foreclosure as dispossession is only part of the story. Wayne County now leverages Detroit’s tax debt to make a profit. The City of Detroit is paid annually for an individual’s delinquent taxes by Wayne County. Essentially this makes it so that Detroit does not have unpaid taxes on the ledger. In order to lend Detroit this money, the county borrows annually from individual investors or banks. To pay off these loans Wayne County then collects unpaid property taxes from delinquent Detroit homeowners, charging them an additional 4 percent interest rate or higher. As Bridge Magazine notes, “profit [for the county] comes from borrowing at 5 percent or less and getting up to 22-percent return on delinquent taxes, creating the surplus controlled by the county treasurer.” Key to this is that the largely white suburbs get to control the surplus generated from Black residents of Detroit. The article continues by noting, “in 2004, Wayne County began to collect Detroit’s delinquent taxes, doubling the county’s surplus of fees and interest from delinquent taxes to an average of $33 million from $15 million per year” (Kurth et al., 2017). 

As a consequence, Detroit, once a city known as a center of Black homeownership, has shifted from a city in which homeowners were the majority to a city in which renters are the majority. The housing stock now has 124,000 owned units and 140,000 rentals (Ruggiero et al., 2020). Coupled with the pandemic, this shift has placed struggles against housing dispossession on different footing. At the forefront now are tenant rights. 

WE LIVE HERE: DETROIT EVICTION DEFENSE 

This book is a celebration of place-based struggle against the forces of dispossession outlined above. Recounted are stories by Detroiters, primarily Black women, who fought and organized to save their homes from a mortgage foreclosure. Together with local activist group DED, these women answer the question “what will Detroit look like in the future?” by asserting that “there is no Detroit without us!” Told in eight chapters, families who have lived in the city for generations detail their deeply personal stories of falling behind on mortgage payments, going through the eviction process, and fighting to keep their homes. In doing so, these stories work against the unexamined assumption that foreclosures are caused by individual irresponsibility. As each family discusses their particular situation, this idea is upended and we can discern that it is not individual fault but rather the contours of racial capitalism that usurp Black and Latinx wealth. While each story has its own particular points of emphasis, the heart of this book is about transformation, resistance, and solidarity in the face of housing loss. 

These stories contradict a popular image of the city as a kind of blank canvas. A canvas to be painted as a collection of cheap properties that entice real estate speculators from around the world, as a creative playground for artists or a landscape for billionaires to resculpt downtown, and as a spot for suburban tourists. Tying these activities together is a view of the city as a functionally empty frontier in need of resettlement. Yet beyond these conventional players in urban growth and development are groups like DED that expand our ability to imagine possible resistances to the future of housing implicit in these exploitative visions. 

Central to DED’s work are direct action tactics to keep Detroiters in their homes. This ranges from physically stopping bailiffs from entering and evicting families to strategies such as packing the courtroom with DED members during eviction hearings. These tactics emerge from DED’s broader organizing, in which homeowners build support in their neighborhoods to mount a defense against eviction. Those facing an impending eviction are urged by DED to go to family, friends, and neighbors to let them know their situation in order to build support for a home defense. 

These acts are not insignificant. People facing eviction often feel ashamed and these moments of community building around dinner tables or in church halls creates the solidarity that is necessary to save a home. 

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