Community Groups Fight the Mortgage Crisis on the Home Front

The actual number of Detroit vacancies is still a bit of a mystery.

The U.S. Postal Service keeps track, but only tallies the addresses that have been vacant for at least 90 days. As of March of this year, 20 percent of the addresses in Detroit were attached to empty structures, the post office says. In total, that's about 78,000, double what it was in 2005.

It's not hard to figure out the reason for the jump in vacancies. Detroit and cities across the nation are facing this same issue, and in a large part it's due to foreclosures. Basically, and not to get all dramatic, we're in a crisis.

The city has been hit pretty hard with foreclosures and, unfortunately, there's no way around it, just through it.

Yet, with this crisis comes change. And one big change that has manifested is how people at the heart of community development are going about their business. They are now working on preserving and protecting their neighborhoods more than building anew. The crisis has also brought neighbors together in new ways, and strengthened the mission of neighborhood organizations.

"There are a lot of positives happening right now," says Danielle Bober, technical director of the Detroit Vacant Property Campaign. "I truly believe that there is a new spirit of cooperation here in Detroit. The foreclosure crisis has exacerbated Detroit's vacancies and the budget, and there is a realization that no one person can properly fix this. It's going to take everybody."

Nearly every neighborhood association and community development corporation is doing something to help fight the foreclosure crisis -- from the complexity of foreclosure counseling to the simplicity of mowing lawns to make vacancies look occupied.

The home front

The fight is being fought on two fronts, really.

First and foremost is the home, focusing on the retention of homeowners, keeping them in in their houses. That's obviously the key. "The only solution to a vacant property is a buyer, an occupant. Anything else we're just treading water," says James Hamilton, president of the Historic Boston Edison Association. Hamilton says that even Boston Edison, one of Detroit's strongest neighborhoods, has been hit by foreclosure. The neighborhood has reported more than 100 empty homes.

It's these neighborhood associations and community development corporations, or CDCs, that are on the front lines of this fight. Historically, CDCs are community builders, often building new housing and commercial spaces to create revenue to build more housing and commercial spaces to grow their neighborhoods. That has been their modus operandi for decades. In many cases, that has changed. The economy has shrunk and building opportunities throughout the city have dried. New construction opportunities are out there, but not in any way they were five years ago. So CDCs are evolving.

"(CDCs) started out as a grassroots, resident driven neighborhood preservation organization. We continued to manifest, getting involved in real estate and production and broadened the scope. But real estate has gone down and other needs have emerged," says Karen Brown, executive director of Creekside CDC on the East Side of Detroit. "Foreclosure prevention and counseling have grown enormously, as well as financial literacy programs. We've always been hands on with the community but now it's different. There's a much more heightened awareness of what community is now."

Throughout the city, nonprofits and CDCs are offering and vigorously promoting foreclosure prevention counseling, something they wouldn't have needed to focus on so much three years ago. Southwest Solutions, for instance, offers a robust foreclosure prevention and counseling program. The Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp. often refers its residents facing foreclosure to Southwest Solutions' Housing Opportunity Center to see what their options may be -- and the options fall on every point of the wheel, from losing a home to saving it, from loan modification to repayment modification to refinancing to forbearance.

"The entirety of this foreclosure crisis canĀ¹t be solved, but it will go away," says Tim Thorland, executive director of Southwest Housing Solutions. "People were in foreclosure before and will be after, but eventually these bad loans from '07 and before will stop."

In the meantime, there's the crisis, and Thorland knows that.

"One third we can help, one third we struggle helping, and one third we just can't help," he says. Those he can't save often suffer from lack of wages or their mortgage is just too far gone to fix. "But we counsel everyone to let them know what options they may have and how the process works."

Southwest Solutions' Housing Opportunity Center, though concentrated in Detroit, offer their services to people in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Neighborhood front

Yet, despite the efforts of the CDCs' work to prevent foreclosure, there are still more than 78,000 vacant addresses in the city. And that leads into the second front of this crisis: Detroit's neighborhoods. What do neighbors do and how do they deal with the vacancies themselves?

"We have not had an effective way to prevent foreclosures (in Boston Edison). That level of engagement is beyond us," Hamilton says. "But what we have done is we've tried to manage the consequence of it. We've been hit, there are a lot of vacant homes."

Managing vacancies has differed from neighborhood to neighborhood, depending on engagement and resources and time.

Hamilton says that residents in Boston Edison try to keep the grass cut in front of as many vacancies as possible and keep their eyes on the enormous houses.

But the best thing for Hamilton's neighborhood -- and other anchor neighborhoods like his -- is to promote the area and find occupants, he says. "Over the last three years we have had well over 100 people buy and move in. It's a testament of people buying and the neighborhood. There is still a steady flow of buyers," he says.

Another effort that's helping deal with these vacancies is the Detroit Vacant Property Campaign. Funded by the Kresge Foundation, they have granted resources to CDCs throughout Detroit to do things like cleaning up empty houses and mapping neighborhood vacancies.

"We've boarded up vacancies, cut grass and have installed solar power lights," says Tom Goddeeris, executive director of the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp. The solar lights charge during the day and then, as night falls, light up giving the idea that someone is there. "It's about safety for the neighborhood," he says.

Goddeeris says the Grandmont Rosedale neighborhoods are about 10 percent vacant. But he says that the vacancies are down a bit, due to the low price of houses.

Other CDCs have gone a few steps further. The Villages CDC are looking to install a closed circuit surveillance system on houses next to vacant structures to increase safety. Additionally, they have established a "flash mob," and installed motion censored security system inside the vacancies. When one of these censors is tripped, those nearest to the alarm call the police, then contact others in the community, and they rally around the vacancy shining flashlights on the house until the authorities get there. Kim Clayson, president of the Villages Community Development Corp., says that this has increased response time in the neighborhood.

U-SNAP-BAC, a CDC on Detroit's East Side, has purchased four foreclosed homes -- two for a dollar and two for $15,000 -- from National City Bank. The goal: Remove vacant property from the neighborhood and put people in the homes. Resources are tight all around, the executive director of U-SNAP-BAC Linda Smith says. They've gone from 15 phone lines to eight and had a few layoffs, but that hasn't stopped the group from rehabbing and filling one of those vacant foreclosed houses.

While neighbors and neighborhoods do what they can, the answers to this foreclosure crisis on a larger scale are bigger than cutting a few lawns and installing solar lights. Bober of the Detroit Vacant Property Campaign looks to leadership beyond the neighborhood level to help find answers. There's got to be a bigger, more comprehensive plan, she says.

"We, the city of Detroit, need a more holistic approach to this issue of vacancy," Bober says. "We need a vision for the future of Detroit. Our work can only go so far. I think it's going to happen but in the meantime we'll be waiting and working."

Terry Parris Jr. writes for Model D. Send feedback here.

Our friends at WDET 101.9 FM have been reporting on ways Detroit is working to fight foreclosure for the past month. Read more about their coverage on their blog and listen along through the end of July on Detroit Today at 101.9 FM. from 1-3 p.m. weekdays.


Alter Commons project

Alter Commons project

Michelle AliDinar, Grandmont Rosedale resident

Grandmont Rosedale mural

Linda Smith, U SNAP BAC

Tom Godderis, Grandmont Rosedale CDC

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

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