How Community Land Trusts Can Fix Detroit’s Foreclosure Mess

Nearly 1 in 6 properties across the city faced tax foreclosure last year. Land trusts are one way to keep buildings—whether housing or businesses—permanently affordable.
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Photo by MarkDKrysiak / iStock.

Shavone Travick’s house means everything to her. The rooms are full of memories: the night when her daughter dressed up for high school prom, the good times when she cooked smothered pork chops for the family. And the location is perfect: Her aging parents and disabled brother live down the street, and she can easily take care of them.

“I just prayed that whoever got the house wouldn't kick me out.”

So in the fall of 2015, when real estate agents began knocking on the door and posting pictures of her house online, Travick begged God to let her stay.

The previous year, her daughter had found something strange in the front yard: a yellow notice in a plastic bag, stapled to a wooden stake. Travick, overwhelmed by a series of health problems, had fallen behind on her property taxes, and the county treasurer was foreclosing on her house.

“I wanted to die, but I just kept thinking you’re here for a reason. It’s nothing bad that’s going to happen to you,” she recalls. “I just prayed that whoever got the house wouldn’t kick me out.”

Travick’s was one of 60,000 properties—nearly one out of every six in Detroit—to face tax foreclosure in 2015. Under Michigan’s tax law, each county must foreclose any property that is behind on taxes for at least three years. Many of these properties are then sold at a public auction.

There are several reasons why Detroit faces such high rates of tax foreclosure. Detroit buildings have been overassessed using outdated property values, resulting in excessively high tax bills. In addition, though the city offers a poverty exemption based on income, many are unaware of the tax break or have difficulty obtaining it. Furthermore, with some properties selling for as little as $1,000, the Detroit housing market attracts unscrupulous investors who purchase homes, milk tenants for rent, then simply walk away from their properties.

There have been various efforts to respond to this crisis, with groups like the United Community Housing Coalition buying some houses and deeding them back to the original families. The city has also begun to reassess property values, an effort that is helping to lower the foreclosure rate. But last year a coalition of local activists came up with a new strategy to keep Detroiters in their homes and foster economic development at the same time: conveying the properties to a community land trust, or CLT.

From 2000 to 2011, the number of CLTs grew from 90 to 242. 

The CLT is a model of land ownership that is becoming increasingly popular across the country in response to unbridled speculation in urban real estate. As a democratically governed nonprofit, a CLT acquires land and ensures it is used for the benefit of the community. It also aims to keep buildings—whether rental housing, owner-occupied homes, or businesses—permanently affordable.

Travick learned the value of a CLT as she was about to lose her home to public auction. At that point, she received a phone call: A nonprofit called Storehouse of Hope was starting a CLT in Detroit and invited her to be its first member. When the organization promised to bid on the house and let her stay there, she eagerly agreed. And that’s how Travick became a founding member of the Storehouse of Hope Community Land Trust—a CLT with a unique origin story and a powerful significance for the residents of Detroit.

With incomes stagnant, homeownership increasingly out of reach, and rents skyrocketing throughout the nation, communities in nearly every state are turning to the community land trust. From 2000 to 2011, the number of CLTs grew from 90 to 242. Just in 2015, the Right to the City Alliance’s Homes for All Campaign, which works to fight displacement in cities throughout the country, worked with 12 organizations developing CLTs in 10 cities, including Detroit.

Detroit’s community land trust movement emerged out of a series of meetings convened by the nonprofit Building Movement Project to determine a path toward equitable policy and planning for the city. At a convention in 2013, community groups and neighborhood leaders ratified five “platform issues” of importance to Detroiters: food justice, transit justice, good jobs, good governance, and land justice (a sixth issue, poverty and inequality, was added the following year). They identified community land trusts as a key tool to achieve “land justice.”

With property values still so low in some parts of the city, activists believe Detroit’s weak market is what makes a CLT so necessary. They point to New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina and the destruction of public housing drove out 100,000 Black residents, resulting in the whitening of the city, virtually overnight. And they say they have faced their own, slow-moving Katrina—the result of decades of disinvestment, the recession, and the tax-foreclosure crisis. These factors have displaced hundreds of thousands of Black Detroiters—and with the mayor’s efforts to spur development downtown and attract educated millennials, activists say, the city’s remaining low-income residents could use the protection of a CLT to ensure long-term affordability. They also imagine a CLT as a hospitable landlord for community-based job-development projects like worker cooperatives.

Detroit’s weak market is what makes a CLT so necessary. 

After several years of frustrated attempts to get land from other channels, in fall 2015 a coalition of Detroit activists decided to address two problems at once: assist families about to lose their homes to foreclosure and launch Detroit’s first CLT. They threw themselves into the tax-foreclosure auctions, buying 15 homes not concentrated within a single neighborhood, as in a traditional CLT, but spread across the entire city.

“We’re sort of doing it backwards,” notes Aaron Handelsman of the Detroit People’s Platform, one of the organizers of the CLT. He says that in a more ideal situation, they would have been working with several families over many years before launching the land trust.

“But it was a situation where either they were going to lose their homes and get evicted, or give permission to Storehouse of Hope [to acquire their homes].”

Why Detroit needs a new vision of land ownership

In the first half of the 20th century, no city epitomized the American dream of homeownership better than Detroit. The birth of the auto industry transformed it into the fourth most populous city in the country by 1940, and by 1950 it was home to almost 1.85 million residing in sprawling, car-centric neighborhoods of single-family homes.

Yet Black families migrating from the South were barred from that American dream of homeownership. Vigilante violence and discriminatory practices forced Black residents of all classes into dilapidated tenements. When African Americans, after hard-fought legal battles, finally began to integrate Detroit’s neighborhoods, the federal government’s red-lining policies encouraged developers to invest in the creation of all-White suburbs and to disinvest in Detroit’s changing neighborhoods. Over time, much of both the White and Black middle class deserted Detroit. Although today’s Black residents can proudly claim a homeownership rate on par with the national White homeownership rate, many Black Detroiters continue to experience housing insecurity due to predatory lending and poverty.

Detroiters know firsthand the power of free-market competition to provide—and deprive—a city of its wealth, and they have been pioneers in imagining a new relationship to land. Detroiters have converted vacant, abandoned lots into urban farms and community spaces, and today the city is home to at least 1,400 community gardens.

Detroit “cannot create value until we create scarcity.”

“Dysfunction and abandonment by capital allows for the emergence of ‘use value,’ rather than ‘exchange value,’” says Shea Howell, a board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center, which continues the mission of the social activists for whom the center is named. In other words, when a city loses the attention of investors, its residents can begin to craft an alternative vision for how to put their resources to use, focusing on people’s needs rather than profit. “It creates a completely different set of relationships about how people work together,” Howell says.

In recent years, however, the return of capital to Detroit has threatened this newfound relationship to land. Many activists point to 2009 as a turning point: In that year, billionaire investor John Hantz proposed that the city sell him 10,000 acres of vacant land to build an urban farm. Hantz’s ultimate goal wasn’t the farm, though; he believed Detroit “cannot create value until we create scarcity.” He hoped that by removing a large chunk of land from the market he could address the imbalance between supply and demand and drive up real estate prices. Community members demanded that the city reject the proposal and instead preserve the land in a community land trust. In the end, although the public outcry forced Hantz to scale back the proposal to 140 acres, the City Council sold the land to him for $540,000 in 2013.

The disappointing results of the Hantz proposal infused energy into the call for community land trusts, and they became a central strategy discussed at the Building Movement Project’s meetings. The alliance known as the Detroit People’s Platform evolved out of this work, and formed a working group called the Detroit Community Land Trust Coalition to study the potential for CLTs in Detroit.

The Rev. Joan Ross, a member of the coalition and director of Storehouse of Hope, unsuccessfully attempted to acquire vacant land from the city and to obtain support from larger nonprofits and foundations. Then Aaron Handelsman, the working group’s organizer, came up with an idea: Why not launch a crowdfunding page to buy homes at the Wayne County Tax Foreclosure auction? It was, in many ways, a crazy proposal. The coalition had no resources, and if it bought homes at the auction, it would face the challenge of managing properties throughout the 142-square-mile city, some in complete disrepair. Nonetheless, the group launched a gofundme.com page, raising more than $108,000 in 10 days from nearly 400 donors. With an additional $30,000 from other funders, they purchased 15 houses, and had some funds left for repairs.

Activists see the CLT not only as a tool to ensure housing stability; they also see it as the backbone of a plan to create quality jobs. 

The CLT works like this: For one to three years, families will pay rent equal to one-third of their incomes, while Storehouse of Hope assumes the costs of repairs, property taxes, insurance, and water bills. Storehouse of Hope will help members interested in repurchasing their homes develop stronger credit so they can obtain mortgages. The organization also plans to help those residents facing economic hardship to get back on their feet; the nonprofit has already hired one resident as an “outreach coordinator.”

There is, of course, a tradeoff for these benefits: If homeowners decide to resell their property, they must abide by sales caps. By placing limits on the amount of home equity that one family can acquire, a CLT can keep its buildings affordable in perpetuity.

A CLT’s governance structure is designed to ensure its policies accurately reflect the community’s vision. Typically governed by a board elected by the community with a “tripartite” structure—one-third of the seats are filled by members of the community, one-third by residents living on the land trust, and one-third by stakeholders invested in the CLT’s mission—a CLT allows a city’s populace to control vital decisions about land use.

And Detroit’s activists see the CLT not only as tool to ensure housing stability; they also see it as the backbone of a plan to create quality jobs.

Why Detroit needs a new economic vision

While the media is celebrating the recent transformation of Detroit, posting headlines like “Is Detroit the Next Brooklyn?” and “Detroit’s revival template for struggling U.S. cities,” some Detroiters are concerned that the city’s revitalization is failing to create economic opportunities for low-income communities of color. The state and city lured the investment firm Quicken Loans with more than $50 million in state tax breaks, and are subsidizing the development of a new hockey stadium with $300 million in bonds backed by property tax revenue.

Robert Rossbach, a spokesperson for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, defended the equitability of the city’s economic development strategy, pointing to the city’s workforce development programs and its Motor City Match program, which finances small business development. He also championed the city’s practice of attracting large companies.

“Since Detroit lost over half its population over the last sixty years, it has to adopt strategies for attracting new residents as well as serving those who are already here,” Rossbach said in an email.

But Richard Feldman, a board member of the Boggs Center, says the city’s economic strategy is fundamentally flawed. He argues that as the United States has shifted from an industrial to a high-tech economy, computers have replaced the majority of the workforce. In the new economy, only a few—the highly educated—can prosper, while the rest of the labor force is excluded from opportunities to produce, becoming a class of permanent “others”—the unemployed and incarcerated.

“It has to adopt strategies for attracting new residents as well as serving those who are already here.”

“There are sections that are being rebuilt based on a myth of economic development, versus the reality that we need community creation,” he says. The 21st century necessitates new relationships to work and land, he argues—one provided by the concept of the community land trust.

The Rev. Ross envisions the Storehouse of Hope CLT becoming not only a landlord of affordable housing, but also a host for locally owned social enterprises. She seeks to acquire land in the North End, a gentrifying neighborhood, to provide a permanent home for Storehouse of Hope’s food pantry and worker-owned businesses. Ross also has been installing solar-powered streetlamps in the North End and hopes to one day employ local residents in the construction of solar panels and other solar-powered devices.

A CLT, supporters say, is the perfect tool to ensure that development meets the priorities of a neighborhood’s existing residents.

“Community control of land over time creates a really important check and balance against the kind of speculative and extractive development that’s happening in Detroit right now,” says Handelsman.

The struggle to scale up

While in other parts of the country, governments have embraced the idea of community land trusts, Detroit’s leaders have yet to be sold on the idea. The city has a land bank, currently under investigation by the FBI , which is supposed to hold abandoned properties and return them to productive use, but critics question its accountability to existing communities. The Detroit People’s Platform has long advocated for the land bank to transfer its properties to a community land trust, but the city agency that could make this decision, the Planning and Development Department, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did several City Council members.

One, however, said that while he recognized displacement as a problem, he is skeptical about the feasibility of CLTs.

“This would be a great time to lock up property if you want to make sure there’s affordable housing in the future. But how do you do it? Who finances it?” Councilmember Scott Benson says. He believes that it would be easier to rely on the private sector to produce affordable housing by requiring developers to use public subsidies to build income-restricted units.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s CLT activists are expanding their movement. In the spring, Storehouse of Hope and the Detroit People’s Platform began promoting their work to the larger Detroit community and inviting groups to participate in webinars funded by the Community Land Trust Network. The Detroit Community Land Trust Coalition is growing, with representatives from dozens of organizations gathering to explore community land trusts and create a central CLT organization that can provide services to smaller, budding CLTs throughout the city. Activists are also pressing the land bank to put its land in the control of local community organizations—all to fulfill the mission of creating thriving communities that are inclusive of residents who have withstood Detroit’s hardest times.

“If you look at the history of Detroit and the old communities and the neighborhoods....You have that sense of what community must have been like 40 years ago or 50 years ago before the freeways went in,” says Ross. “It makes perfect sense that we go back to our beginning, go back to our roots, and reclaim our equity ... and reclaim the fact that community has to [be] first.”