Originally published in the Detroit Free Press
If you’re anything like me, you feel a little sick when you hear that yet another 36,000 Detroit properties are facing tax foreclosure this year. Tax foreclosure is an autoimmune disorder through which our own local government has become the agent of its own destruction. The city, the county and the state all have a role in carrying out tax foreclosure, but they also have the ability to end it.
Prevent the Loss
The first priority must be to preserve homeownership. The most obvious solution for retaining homeowners is to use the federal funds already allocated for foreclosure prevention to actually prevent foreclosure, at no cost to local government.
Each year, the Michigan State Develop Housing Authority, (MSHDA) “Step Forward” program denies assistance to hundreds of applicants who ultimately lose their homes to tax foreclosure. Meanwhile, the funds go unused. MSDHA requirements are too judgmental, stringent and unreasonable for worthy homeowners to qualify, and the application period is too short. Local government should and could aggressively lobby MSDHA to better utilize its foreclosure prevention money for Detroit homeowners, and to increase this funding by returning demolition funds for their original purpose.
Another solution involves the expansion of the so-called “poverty exemption,” which waives taxes for Michigan homeowners with low incomes. This exemption could be extended on a retroactive basis (as with income taxes and the “principal residence exemption”). A retroactive poverty exemption could annul the foreclosures for hundreds or thousands of at-risk Detroit homeowners who are losing their houses for taxes that they could have had waived.
At-risk homeowners need better payment plans. State law limits Wayne County’s options for reducing interest and debt, and over-assessed delinquent tax bills increase at 18% interest each year. One option is the so-called “SEVSPA” plan, a plan that cut tax debt to half the State Equalized Value. This existed under 2015 law passed with the support of Mayor Duggan, but it was only available temporarily at a time when property assessments across Detroit were still chronically over-inflated. We need more common-sense payment plans that reduce debt to some value proportionate to the home’s property value or the owner’s ability to pay. Continue reading
In the time before life, Earth was but a swirling mass of gasses: no land, no sea, no sky. A day was nothing but a shy twirl of the earth before the gaze of the sun, whose only impact was to stir the winds with waves of temperature that whipped the elements about. As they heated, cooled, mixed, and clashed, the stirring gasses combined into configurations of molecules, gaining weight, gaining complexity, gaining volume, gaining density. With time, the gasses transformed to liquid and created a great ocean. And with more time, there were humble solid specs floating in that ocean.
The solids were contained environments for certain elements to remain locked together, and as the solid specks collided together, those connections caused side effects and reactions that sometimes created larger configurations, sometimes created new types of combinations, and sometimes created splits of bigger pieces into smaller.
On one nameless morning amidst the coastless sea, the dawn light pierced a wave like a prism and cast down such a laserlight concentration of light onto a single solid speck in such a way that it provoked a great reaction. The speck, thus infused, could not contain its new energy and it cleaved apart. But this reaction was of a different kind than any that had preceded it: rather than split the large solid into smaller solids, this reaction separated the physical from the aphysical, the matter from the antimatter, the large solid from the corresponding otherness. Thus, the speck was infused with Life-state, and an equal-and-opposite God-state manifested alongside. In this instant, the duel phenomena of Life and God came about. Continue reading
Here is a truth: you do not know what God is. You use this word, and it’s a useful word, and you are free to use it, and you will be almost right when you do. But you do not truly know that to which it refers. That which you conjure when you point your word at it is at the same time smaller than what you think it is and also greater. It is smaller because it is not immortal, nor inevitable, nor universal. It is fragile and finite and formless. It is greater because it is dynamic, evolving, and intimate. It does not know you but it is of you.
Allow me to explain. Continue reading
Reflections on my journey to stay in one place
I never imagined I would be washing his dishes: the remains of some crusty casserole, six or eight months old; a mystery Tupperware; a rimmed teacup. I’m sure that if he had could have known that I, a woman he met only once, would be cleaning up after him, he may have taken care of the mess himself. Or maybe not. Maybe a century-old man only needs one plate and one cup, and maybe he relishes in leaving the rest of them dirty. Maybe he feels he’s cleaned enough dishes in his life and gets a kick out of the idea of some family member, some hired worker, some stranger doing it for him. I don’t really know what he thought or what kind of man he was because our time only barely intersected. Ben Jaros lived in one home each of his 98 years and I have now passed one of mine in that same house. His house. My house. Home.
I moved here scared and reluctant after finding out that my apartment was turning into a condo and that my work-for-rent gig was over. I had bought a $500 home in the tax auction but it had no windows, electricity, plumbing, or heat and it was still winter. I had not signed a lease since my divorce and, after moving twelve times in three and a half years, I seemed to know less about where I belonged than where I didn’t.
These frequent moves gave me a strong sense of respect for the idea of “home” so I think that’s why I was so stunned when I met Mr. Ben Jaros in front of his Hamtramck house that he proudly told me had never moved from. I asked if I could take his picture and he agreed. Immediately, I knew this picture would be the olive branch in our friendship. I would print the image of the old man with his house and he would fill in the stories of his time these. I wanted to know what he had lived through and, even more than that, I wanted my restless soul to learn what it was like to be satisfied with that you already had.
My intentions were good but I didn’t exactly prioritize this little project. Nine months passed until I finally printed the photo, found a frame for it, isolated a time in my schedule and summoned up the nerve to drop by. Nobody home. On my next visit, I saw a neighbor walking his big goldendoodle down the sidewalk and learned that the old man had done what took most people less time to do: he died.
I went home feeling disappointed and inexplicably sad about my failure to anticipate this inevitable event. It seemed to matter that I’d never have the chance to hear those stories. Continue reading
Not for Sale
Originally published by Metro Times
At the time of this writing, Detroit is in the midst of yet another round of the staged cage-fight that is the tax foreclosure auction. In many ways this feels like an individual fight — one home at a time fighting to mitigate the harshest consequences such as eviction, homelessness, and permanent property damage. Yet this issue affects the city as a whole, and it’s important that we do not become desensitized to the routine social violence that it represents. The truth is that Detroit is for sale by our own local government, and it is time to challenge the convenient notions that help us fall asleep at night.
In its barest terms, here is how the tax foreclosure process functions in Detroit:
When you own a home, you have to pay taxes. Every year, the city of Detroit assesses the property value and issues two tax bills accordingly. Property taxes help pay for infrastructure, libraries, the zoo, schools, garbage pickup, and so on. If the city taxes are not paid, the debt gets passed on to the Wayne County Treasurer, which acts as a collections agency, tacking on 18 percent interest per each year if the taxes go unpaid. After three years, state law requires that the Wayne County Treasurer foreclose on the property and put it up for sale in an auction, where it is sold to the highest bidder.
Under this system, one out of every three Detroit properties has been put up for auction by the Wayne County Treasurer since 2002.
Understandably, the consequences of such massive forced turnover in property ownership are severe. The system provides a harsh penalty for violating the social contract: pay your taxes or lose your house. However, it fails to address the underlying reasons for tax delinquency or adequately recoup lost revenue, and leads to deep and enduring consequences that devastate the city as a whole.
Myth 1: The system is fair Continue reading
Outside my office window-
a flat patch of land
where a home once stood
no shadow, fresh dirt,
I cant remember it, exactly.
Outside my office window-
two police cars
lights flashing, sirens off
black tarp, solid form
still body-shaped, but still.
Outside my office window-
a big semi truck
from the deconstruction site
that rolled over that woman-
with blind spots
now she’s gone,-
but not buried yet.
I can still see her form there
right where I biked to work last Friday
singing loud enough to hear-
if you rolled your windows down-
riding fast enough to see-
if you checked your mirrors-
but soft enough to fall-
if you won’t, or don’t-
and small enough to be forgotten,
once they lay that pavement down.
The moment is…
a kiss and not a word,
a what and not a why,
is you without your story,
The moment is
the drop of water you can taste on your tongue as you dive into the sea- you in the ocean, the ocean in you;
is the chorus of a flash rainstorm percussing off a dozen rooftops- teasing your ear with the impossible task of isolating a single sound
is the time in the parking lot between driving and walking- where you stop the car and the radio is silent and the key is dropping into your purse while the other hand opens the door and your face feels the motion of the outside air for the first time.
is the dream that hovers over you in wisps of color and light as you lie in bed just before you mind regains Time for the day
is any connection of any life with any other life, or with a unbodied element of god’s infrastructure;
is a place not rooted in geography,
that follows wherever you go;
is time that is free from time,
that disappears as soon as you name it;
The moment is
Is a dance and not a worry
Is a breath and not sigh
Is a kiss and not a story
Is a kiss and not a sorry
Is a kiss and not a word.
At the event when I couldn’t help but stand up and talk too much,
I opened myself up to judgment in order to speak the burning necessity that was bubbling up my throat, determined to be shared.
Taking my seat for the forth or fifth last time, a woman two rows back lifted her head and her hand to get my attention. “Hey”, she said. “We need to talk”, she said. “We’ve met before”, she said. Continue reading
I climbed the mountain not to reach the top, but to cross over,
marking each morning with a new little bracelet on my wrist,
with colors of ascending frequency to note the mounting chakras,
simulating an elevated state in the thinning air.
I love me, I want to be me…. but not this way.
This me can’t be alone with herself, this me is flipping through her hair, her phone, a box of cookies to avoid that awkward small-talk with the ignored inner self.
I didn’t listen to her, but I did dress her up, one braided bangle at a time,
with all the attributes of a happy soul,
if not a body to put them in.
Wasn’t it one year ago the stranger gave me that kite?
A symbol of my freedom, she said.
But she didn’t give me the wind, or the way.
And the girl I was rose with the sun in the place where the horizon flexed acute,
lifted her childish pennant and begged the coldest winds of Africa to do for her what that year had not.
And when the flag had failed her, she replaced it with another sorry charm.
From a man to a mountain- the talisman shifts shape
but is always rooted in the same hope: change me, heal me, make me whole.
They have all failed and they always will
unless or until the hope can become the desire to be me, even as I already am
clutching a soggy bracelet of sincere hopes faded in chlorine and concessions.
I don’t feel like swimming any more.
Maybe I want to write-
first draft, fuck it-
and to go nowhere that I am not already.
[Originally published by ModelD. All photos depict homes that were occupied when they were acquired by Detroit Land Bank Authority but are now vacant.]
Detroit’s greatest paradox is its abundance of space and its scarcity of quality housing.
The massive stock of single family homes once sustained double the current population. Yet each year, more Detroit homeowners become renters, squatters or altogether homeless. The problem is complex but the solutions do not have to be: what is needed is an immediate, scalable solution that will create stability and an upward trajectory for people, property, and the city at large.
It’s time for Detroit to reinvent urban homesteading by selling homes to their current residents. Continue reading