AFRICANGLOBE – Unlike so many industrial innovations, the revolving door was not developed in Detroit. It took its first spin in Philadelphia in 1888, the brainchild of Theophilus Van Kannel, the soon-to-be founder of the Van Kannel Revolving Door Company. Its purpose was twofold: to better insulate buildings from the cold and to allow greater numbers of people easier entry at any given time.
On March 31st at the Wayne Country Treasurer’s Office, that Victorian-era invention was accomplishing neither objective. Then again, no door in the history of architecture — rotating or otherwise — could have accommodated the latest perversity Detroit officials were inflicting on city residents: the potential eviction of tens of thousands, possibly as many as 100,000 people, all at precisely the same time.
Little wonder that it seemed as if everyone was getting stuck in the rotating doors of that Wayne County office building on the last day residents could pay their past-due property taxes or enter a payment plan to do so. Those who didn’t, the city warned, would lose their homes to tax foreclosure, the process by which a local government repossesses a house because of unpaid property taxes.
“Oh, my lord,” exclaimed one bundled-up woman when she first spotted the river of people, their documents in envelopes and folders of every sort, pouring out of cars, hunched over walkers, driving electric scooters, being pushed in wheelchairs, or simply attempting to jam their way on foot into the building. The afternoon was gray and unseasonably cold. The following day, in the middle of a snowless meadow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the governor of California would announce the state’s first-ever water restrictions as a result of an unprecedented, climate-change-influenced drought. Here in Michigan, city residents were facing another type of man-made disaster: possibly the largest single tax foreclosure in American history.
“It’s the last day to pay,” one woman heading toward the rotating glass chamber yelled to a pedestrian who had slowed to watch the commotion. Inside, a Wayne County Sheriff’s Department officer-turned-traffic-controller boomed instructions to a snaking line of people. “When you get to the eighth floor, you will get a number. Keep that number! Then go to the fifth floor.’”
The eighth floor, however, turned out to be little more than another human traffic jam, a holding space for thousands of anxious homeowners who faced hours of waiting before reaching the desk of some overworked city representative down on five. Yet, as a post office delivery worker gaping at the fiasco told me, this was less hectic than it had been a only few days earlier, when the treasurer’s office had rented out the Second Baptist Church across the street. There, people waited for the opportunity to enter the revolving doors to take the elevator to the eighth floor before heading for the fifth floor to… you get the gist.
In fact, the whole week had been a god-awful mess. A day earlier, rumors had it, a woman had passed out in the elevator between the eighth and fifth floors en route to “making arrangements,” the euphemism for getting on a payment plan that might save your home.
“What happens if you can’t pay?” a slender man asked me as we dodged a new wave of people surging through the glass cylinder.
“Then they sell your house at auction,” I replied.
“For real?” he asked, amazed.
He was waiting for his sister to make those “arrangements.” He didn’t have to worry about all this, he explained, because ever since he’d lost his job, which had provided him with housing, he’d been staying in motels. The Victory Inn over in Dearborn and the Viking across from the Motor City casino were both reasonable enough places, he assured me, but the Royal Inn on Eight Mile was the cheapest of all — $35 a night plus a $10 key deposit. That establishment’s single enigmatic Yelp review read: “This is definitely someplace you want to go where totally normal things happen.”
A Blueprint for Civic Hell
Detroit was once famous for creating the largest, most spectacular versions of whatever its residents set their minds to, be they assembly lines, record labels, or revolutionary workers’ associations. The city is often credited with inventing and mass-producing the twentieth century, while its workers simultaneously took the lead in revolting against the injustices of the era. Its factories put the world on wheels and labor laws on the books. Its workers and thinkers sparked and fanned a number of this country’s most influential resistance movements.
Detroit: every article about you should include a love letter, a thank-you note, a history lesson, for without you…
Few care to admit, however, that the city that was the arsenal of the twentieth century may also provide the blueprint for a more precarious era. Which brings us to those massive tax foreclosures of the present moment. Just over 60,000 homes, about half of them occupied, are slated for the auction block. As many as 100,000 of the city’s residents — about a seventh of the total number — are now on track for what many are calling an eviction “conveyor belt.”
Such an image easily springs to mind in this city whose auto factories were famous for their oh-so-efficient shop floors. These days, sadly enough, it’s all-too-easy to imagine a twenty-first-century version of a classic Detroit assembly line dedicated to processing its own residents, workers, and retirees — all the ones it claims to no longer need, all those too old, too young, too ill-trained, too inefficient for a post-bankruptcy city. These undesirables, it seems, are to be turned into so many economic refugees on a conveyor belt to nowhere. While everyone loves to hear about legendary industrial Detroit, no one wants to hear about its de-industrialized progeny, and especially not about foreclosures — not again.
Mike Shane, a Detroit resident and organizer with the anti-foreclosure group Moratorium Now!, knows this better than anyone. “We call the press, and they say, give us anything but foreclosures,” he tells me ruefully.
Connecting the Dots
On March 31st, some people did manage to make the necessary “arrangements” to save their homes. That included one woman with a Hillary Clinton-style hairdo who had lived on Winthrop Street since the 1960s, but like so many in the working-class sections of the city had fallen behind on her taxes. “They asked, ‘Why didn’t you pay your property taxes?’” she explained as she rested on one of the first-floor benches. “And I said, ‘Because I had a heart attack.’”
Last year, she recalled, a neighbor’s home fell into tax foreclosure. A man who lived on the same block noticed the familiar address on the auction list. He bought it back for her, she tells me. “He said to the woman, ‘Pay me back when you can, if you can.’”
Detroit is full of similar stories, filled with a stubborn sense of hope. But there are so many more addresses on the foreclosure list than angelic neighbors. By early afternoon that March day, the building still bursting at its seams with thousands of people, the county office conceded its inability to cope and extended the foreclosure deadline another six weeks.
“I don’t know if it’s because they’re so damn overwhelmed,” wondered Mary Crenshaw, a sunken-eyed woman who was relieved by the announcement, as it gave her time to wait for a lump-sum retirement payout from British Airways, her former employer. She had come to save her family home in Highland Park, a small city enclosed by Detroit whose once occupied homes sported oak floors and beveled glass windows. Now, more than half of them are empty, lawns overgrown, windows boarded up, the former homeowners having already ridden earlier foreclosure conveyor belts out of the neighborhood.
After all, this current tax foreclosure crisis comes right on the heels of the city’s last great displacement: the 2008 housing crash, which descended on Detroit like a tidal wave, sweeping nearly a quarter of a million people out of the city and leaving in its wake tens of thousands of vacant properties.
The fact that the city is now threatening to evict a seventh of its remaining inhabitants in a single year, all because of unpaid property taxes, seems like an absurd proposition until you begin to connect the dots: the mass water shutoffs, the shuttering of dozens of public schools, the neglect of fire hydrants in particular neighborhoods, and now this deluge of foreclosures.
Looking at the pattern that emerges, you can see that Detroit is not only a city in the midst of a “revival,” as enterprising investors and the national mediaoften claim. It’s true that redevelopment is taking place in some neighborhoods, and city officials do claim that big changes are coming, often illustrating them with colorful documents that look like they were formatted by a team of graphic design wizards from the back of San Francisco’s Google Bus.
But that’s just one part of the Detroit story. For the city’s low-income, black, and elderly residents, Detroit isn’t a city on the rise, but one under siege.