Analyzing the rhetoric around blight, foreclosure, and eviction in Detroit reveals a lot about local attitudes towards/concepts of ownership, poverty, race, and social justice. Over the last two years, I have followed and documented local media coverage of Detroit’s blight and foreclosure crises–including the comment threads on these stories, which mostly feature comments from Metro Detroiters–and have noted several pervasive beliefs and misconceptions that underly and structure public discourse about these issues.
Below are some comments on a Detroit News piece by Christine MacDonald about Jeffrey Cusimano, a negligent property owner who does not pay property taxes or maintain his properties to code, yet faces no consequences (legal or otherwise) for his actions.
1). “When someone plays the system like a fiddle, I tend to blame the system.”
If a (white) landlord like Cusimano doesn’t pay property taxes or maintain his properties and faces no legal consequences for those actions, “the system” that lets him get away with it is to blame. Other commenters on this piece mention the “housing disaster created by the banks,” again deflecting attention and blame from individuals back to “the system.”
But if a low-income person of color in Detroit defaults on property taxes or rent for any reason and fights to stay in his or her home, a common response among commenters will be that they’re clearly trying to “take advantage of the system” (which reverts to being “fair” again, just a set of rules, enforced equally, that we all have to play by).
Different social rules apply to low-income tenants and their comparatively wealthy landlords, with the former being held to a much higher (moral) standard than the latter.
2). “Don’t you think that 19 evictions is more a reflection of the quality of tenants and their attitudes towards paying honest debts than it is of the system?”
Commenters on blight/foreclosure/eviction stories often focus their criticism on low-income residents and how they alone must be to blame for what’s happening to them. This commenter’s inclusion of the word “honest” references low-income renters’ perceived immorality—being poor and defaulting on payments and debts is viewed as a personal moral failing, not a symptom of systemic, institutionalized racism and inequality. This commenter disregards the fact that Cusimano avoided paying the “honest debt” of property taxes on one of his properties for 9 years and that all of the 29 properties Cusimano has purchased since 1989 have cycled through mortgage and tax foreclosure. Defaulting on tax/rent payments is only perceived to be a social and moral problem when low-income tenants do it.
3). “And yet they have a dish on the roof.”
Scrutinizing imagery of a home for evidence of perceived financial (and other types of) mismanagement on the part of tenants/occupants is a common theme in comment threads on stories about foreclosure and eviction in Detroit. In a recent Detroit Free Press report about a resident whose home was demolished by the Detroit Land Bank Authority while he was still living in it, many commenters took the time to research the property using Google StreetView, and they repeatedly cited the condition of the home’s roof and yard as reasons why the Land Bank was right to demolish his home (illegally, without due process, and after the resident had been assured by Land Bank officials that his house would not be demolished). The external appearance of this resident’s home and his personal information–specifically information concerning his childhood, finances, and race–were scrutinized and used by commenters to judge whether or not he “deserved” and had a right to his home, independent of the laws that are supposed to give everyone certain rights and protections re: occupancy and eviction.
And yet, when Cusimano and other predatory, negligent property owners in Detroit let their properties sit vacant and fail to improve or even maintain those properties, it’s generally considered to be their legal right as property owners and “investors” to do so. This attitude is reflected in the city’s sporadic and unequal enforcement of blight regulations and rental laws. An individual resident’s unpaid property taxes will most often result in foreclosure and eviction, but negligent developers and investors like Cusimano can purchase a home at auction, avoid paying any taxes on it, allow it to cycle into foreclosure and go back into the tax auction, and then use shell companies to buy the property back and start the whole process over again, without any consequences.
4). “Why would anyone move in there in the first place? Did they expect it to magically transform? Hardly. It’s just an excuse to not pay” and “Renters don’t take care of anything! Move in, destroy, move out.”
Again, the blame falls on low-income tenants/occupants for trying to secure safe, adequate housing in a largely unregulated rental market rather than on the negligent landlord who “plays the system like a fiddle” to profit from their struggle. Thirty-nine percent of Detroit residents live at or below the federal poverty line, making Detroit the poorest big city in the US. For decades, however, Detroit had one of the highest rates of homeownership (and of Black homeownership in particular) in the country. Only in the last several years have the majority of Detroit residents have become renters. Finding housing that is affordable, well-maintained, and accessible–both financially, and socially–to low-income residents is extremely difficult.
While Detroit does have laws and regulations regarding rental properties, the city often does not enforce them, and homes are rarely inspected to make sure that they are up to code and safe for habitation. The city’s inaction reinforces the belief, echoed by these commenters, that tenants are and should be responsible for both finding and maintaining affordable, safe, up-to-code housing.
5). “The city should be giving this guy an award for even trying in Detroit. If he didn’t own these houses they would just be more shells to dump bodies in…” and “Who cares? Detroit is a Sewer!” and “Detroilet”
Another common theme in discussions about property ownership and development in Detroit is the idea/belief that “investors” should be rewarded just for being willing to buy property here, because, as the second and third comments highlight, Detroit is still perceived by many to be a dangerous place to live and to invest in. These “rewards” include various types of financial incentives and tax incentives and the willingness of the city and many metro Detroit residents to ignore or excuse the unethical, predatory, and often illegal actions of investors. The fact that investors are motivated by profit and are not purchasing/renovating properties in Detroit purely out of the goodness of their hearts doesn’t seem to be an issue for many Metro Detroit residents. Again, when an investor/landlord games the system to make a profit, it’s considered acceptable (laudable, even), but low-income, Black residents will be heavily criticised for supposedly “gaming the system” when they fight to stay in their homes despite facing (often illegal) foreclosures and/or evictions.
As I mentioned above, the city does not enforce rental regulations, and it is generally believed that doing so could discourage “investment.” For example, in another report in Christine MacDonald’s series about eviction in Detroit, landlords and property managers express their concern that if Detroit starts enforcing its rental regulations–which would include requiring landlords to register their rental properties, pay for annual inspections, and resolve safety issues (eg. lead abatement)–the increased oversight and costs of doing business will result in investors leaving the city. Quoting one landlord, “When the city gets involved, it just causes problems…It is just going to get worse.” A landlord attorney who was also quoted in the article said that enforcing regulations will “kill” the rental property market, and that being a landlord in Detroit is already “a losing game” (but if that’s the case, why do so many investors do it?).
While these issues are by no means unique to Detroit, foreclosures/evictions have reached crisis levels here in recent years. This is largely attributable to the fact that between 2009 and 2015, the City of Detroit illegally overassessed 55% to 85% of its residential properties, resulting in over 100,000 Detroit families losing their homes to foreclosure. African American residents were disproportionately affected by the illegal overassessments, and many of the residents who lost their homes to foreclosure were then forced to become renters.
For more information on Detroit’s foreclosure crisis and how the auction system is rigged to penalize and displace low-income residents while rewarding investors and developers, see this recent article by Michele Oberholtzer and this article by Steve Neavling.