No property left behind recapped

Last Wednesday night at pop-up coffee shop Café Con Leche del Este in Lafayette Park, over 200 people interested in discussing the aftermath of the recent Wayne County auction of tax foreclosed properties jammed into the back of the space. They participated in a talk on how to shape the auction more intelligently in the future. 

The Model D-UIX event was in partnership with Loveland Technologies, the architects of WhyDontWeOwnThis and SiteControl, online tools that add transparency and user-friendly information access to the auction process. The event captured all that is at once exciting and daunting in Detroit right now.

For many, this was their first opportunity to experience the Revolve Detroit pop-up retail program. But the reason for them coming was to discuss a serious issue critical to the future of the city: how to deal with Detroit’s tax reverted properties and the best ways to return them to productive use.

People began trickling in around 5 p.m., striking up conversations about their auction experiences before taking off their coats. Before long, the line to get coffee was out the door. An hour later, it was standing room only. The audience was composed of a diverse group of Detroiters, some of whom had been negatively affected by the auction, some of whom had purchased properties in the auction, and others who were simply curious.

Shel Kimen, a resident of the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood on Detroit’s East Side, came to the event to learn more about solutions to what she considers one of the biggest issues facing Detroit. She was impressed with the turnout, saying, "There was a very palpable sense of people working together on a very tricky problem."

The discussion started with an introduction by Loveland’s Jerry Paffendorf, whose passion for discovering collaborative solutions to what he describes as Detroit’s "wonderful, inspiring problems" became immediately evident to those who hadn’t met him before the event. Jerry thanked everyone for coming and joked that they would all receive a complimentary blighted building with a value of "minus-$10,000." While drawing a hearty laugh from the audience, this remark spoke directly to the serious issues of the liability involved in purchasing tax-reverted properties.

The night was full of staggering statistics provided by the Loveland crew, local government officials, and policy analysts. Nearly 20,000 Detroit properties were put on the auction block this year, of which 8,000 went unsold. The audience learned from experts that unsold properties will be offered to City of Detroit, and if the city exercises its first right of refusal, the properties end up in the possession of the Michigan Land Bank.

While Wayne County recovered $50 million in lost revenue through the auction, the revenue gap of the potential taxable value of foreclosed properties stands at $220 million. Alex Alsup of Loveland made it clear that though the largest property auction in the world just concluded, it is critical to start planning for next year’s auction, which promises to be even bigger. Currently 43,000 properties in Detroit are at risk of tax foreclosure, nearly 10 percent of all properties in the city.

Chief Deputy Wayne County Treasurer David Szymanski, whose office is mandated by state law to hold the annual auction of tax-reverted properties, was able to address the audience for a short time. He introduced a new program made possible by MSHDA that will provide financial assistance to homeowners at risk of property tax foreclosure starting in January.

Attendees were brimming with ideas as the event opened up for comments. Some saw the auction as an opportunity to address the city’s homelessness problem, while others saw it as an opportunity to create a business model around the deconstruction of blighted houses. Erin Kelly, a Detroit Revitalization Fellow and employee of NextEnergy, made a provocative case for using abandoned structures in Detroit as a resource for job creation and new product development.

Connecting the auction to that kind of strategy is already underway in some neighborhoods like Springwells in Southwest Detroit. Many representatives of community organizations, like Karen Washington of the newly formed Restore Northeast Detroit network, were excited to educate neighborhood residents about how to utilize Loveland-developed tools like Why Don’t We Own This?

As Paffendorf said, Loveland’s tools can be like X-ray glasses, adding transparency to the auction process, but "just building cool tools does not get the job done…You need to connect with networks and people." That was certainly accomplished Wednesday as people and organizations made new connections that will help neighborhood stabilization efforts.

The conversation does not end with Wednesday’s event. WhyDontWeOwnThis, described by the Loveland team as "one big suggestion box," is a place where the conversation will continue. To join the discussion, visit the site and connect with others interested in the property auction and learn about other auction-related resources. Attendees of the event filled out a brief survey that asked questions like "What super power over Detroit properties do you wish you had?" and "who’s doing great work in this area?" Results of the survey will be made available online soon.

To learn more about the Office of the Wayne County Treasurer and MSHDA’s forthcoming back taxes assistance program, as well as other issues relating to tax foreclosure in Wayne County, go to the County Treasurer’s webpage. And contact the Michigan Land Bank here to find out how to purchase properties not sold at auction.

Matthew Lewis is project editor for a series beginning later this month on the sustainability of Michigan's Great Lakes basin.

Read more articles by Matthew Lewis.

Matthew Lewis is a writer and former managing editor of Model D. He's currently the communications officer for the New Economy Initiative. 
Signup for Email Alerts