Geraldine Smith-Bey at her home on Detroit’s east side, April 6, 2021. Smith-Bey is locked in a protracted dispute over rent payment and repairs to her house’s leaking roof and collapsing porch with her landlord, the nonprofit Storehouse of Hope. Credit: Aaron Mondry
On a crisp day in late March, Geraldine Smith-Bey stood in front of her home on Fischer Street in Detroit before a crowd of around 50 people. In an impassioned speech, streamed by many in attendance to Facebook Live, she recounted her struggle to keep her family home.
Smith-Bey’s East Village home has multi-generational lineage, she said. Originally purchased by her grandmother in the 1980s, Smith-Bey moved into it 19 years ago to take care of her mother and became the owner in 2005 after she died. In 2015, she lost it to foreclosure. Like so many Detroit homes between 2010 and 2016, it had been overassessed and her tax bill was too high. Smith-Bey only fell behind by $1,211, but it was enough to place the home in Wayne County’s tax foreclosure auction, a fate that befell thousands of struggling Detroit homeowners during the same period.
Fortunately, or so it seemed at the time, Smith-Bey’s home was then bought for the price of her tax debt by Storehouse of Hope, an organization run by Rev. Joan C. Ross, a well-known community advocate in the North End. The 501c3 nonprofit raised $108,463 through a GoFundMe campaign and bought 15 homes across the city at the auction.
The goal was to keep occupants in their homes, eventually converting them into owners. The properties would become part of a land trust to maintain long-term affordability and ensure they wouldn’t be lost to foreclosure or developers.
“Storehouse of Hope was born out of an attempt to fix problems — tax foreclosure and affordable housing — that nobody else was really trying to deal with,” Ross said. “Our focus is on folks who are at 30% or below the area median income. Nobody is trying to do housing in that bracket. It’s too difficult. There’s no return, no money.”
Storehouse of Hope and its nontraditional housing model saved nine families from foreclosure nearly six years ago and continues to offer affordable rent to all its tenants. But it has yet to convert any into homeowners and is struggling financially. It has also put Smith-Bey in an untenable living situation through neglect.
That’s why social and housing justice groups Detroit Eviction Defense, Charlevoix Villages Association and Detroit Will Breathe organized the March rally to demand that Storehouse of Hope return the home to Smith-Bey.
“I’ve been trying for the past — not one, not two, not three or four — but five years to get my home back out of the hands of Reverend Ross,” she said to the crowd.
Not only has Smith-Bey not become an owner, but the condition of her home has deteriorated, despite Storehouse of Hope’s guarantees that it would undertake all essential repairs. After years of deferred maintenance, the house is now close to unlivable for her and her two children. Because it needs a new roof, water seeps through light fixtures whenever it rains. Black mold is growing in the kitchen. Both the foundation and roof of the porch are collapsing. There are cracks in the wall, doors and floorboards.
“There’s no way my family should be living like this, still, after five years,” Smith-Bey told Detour Detroit. “This is affecting me emotionally, mentally and physically. I have high blood pressure. It’s keeping me up at night.”
She called Ross a “slum landlord” and has been withholding rent since October 2019 because Storehouse of Hope has yet to complete any repairs.
Ross told Detour a different version of events. She said Smith-Bey’s refusal to pay her $191 monthly rent is not related to the lack of home repairs. Smith-Bey also hasn’t been keeping her rent in an escrow account, the legal avenue for a tenant to withhold rent from a negligent landlord.
Ross said she wasn’t aware that the home was in such a terrible state until city inspectors started issuing blight tickets in November last year — the property has racked up 41 so far. Ross added that there is a procedure for submitting maintenance requests to Storehouse of Hope that Smith-Bey has never used.
“There’s always been a story with Geraldine, always been a reason why she was late on rent,” Ross said. “This is not a justice situation. This is really, if you want to say it, a tenant-landlord matter.”
The community land trust model
Community land trusts have been around in the United States since at least the 1960s. Inspired by the Jewish National Fund, which bought and leased land to cooperatives in Israel, a group of African American farmers formed the first such U.S. trust in Albany, Georgia, in 1969. They bought up over 5,000 acres of farmland for the land trust, called New Communities, and established ground leases for individuals and cooperatives.
Though there are different kinds of community land trusts, in most cases the trust owns the land to prevent foreclosure and keep housing costs affordable. Occupants can buy buildings on the land for a portion of their market value on long-term agreements (often 99 years).
Under Storehouse of Hope’s plan, buyers would purchase homes at 75% of their market value. If they decided to sell, they could only do it for the original purchase price plus inflation and the value of home improvements, keeping housing prices detached from fluctuations in market value.
Storehouse of Hope emerged from dialogues that began around 2010 among Detroit housing justice advocates, including members of the Detroit People’s Platform and United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC), who sought to establish a community land trust in the city. These discussions, called the Community Land Trust Working Group, became ever more urgent as the tax foreclosure crisis escalated. In 2015 alone, Wayne County foreclosed on more than 60,000 homes in Detroit.
“We had to do something about the severe tax foreclosure problem,” Ross said. “So we decided to form the land trust and try to save some of the families that were being wiped away by foreclosure.”
After raising the money and buying the 15 homes, Storehouse of Hope reached out to the occupants and offered them a chance to be a part of the community land trust. Some of them, Ross said, had already left before they could be reached.
But not everyone was comfortable with the process. Rachael Baker, an organizer with Detroit Renter City and former director of the Hamilton Community Land Trust in Ontario, helped co-facilitate some meetings of the Community Land Trust Working Group. She felt that Storehouse of Hope did a poor job reaching out to occupants.
“It meant that some of the homes ended up being purchased without the knowledge of the people in them,” Baker said. “They were forced to be part of the land trust without consent, which is absolutely not in alignment with the values of a land trust.”
Baker, who resigned from the working group before Storefront of Hope purchased its properties, also took issue with the fact that so far, none of the occupants have actually become part of a land trust — they were and still are tenants. Moreover, none were given the option to buy back their home.
Ross suggested that Storefront of Hope’s intervention was necessary because the former homeowners could not afford their taxes. “If they had just lost the house, how could they buy them back?” she said.
But Smith-Bey said she could have afforded to pay her tax debt — she just didn’t realize how dire her situation was. “Had the county told me I owed only $1,211, I could have gone down there the next day and paid it,” Smith-Bey said. The city and county were criticized around this time for their lack of outreach to low-income homeowners and those at risk of foreclosure, making it especially difficult to get a Poverty Tax Exemption or appeal an assessment.
Of criticisms about Storehouse of Hope’s model, Ross said that there’s no single way a land trust operates, and in 2015, they felt it was urgent to move fast and save homes. “Look across the country. Every one is tailored to the needs of that community. There is no one way to do this.”
According to Ross, Storehouse of Hope originally aimed to stabilize the homes, as well as tenants’ financial situations, so they could purchase their homes back and officially enter the land trust within five years. Storehouse of Hope intended to take care of basic home repairs and pays all taxes and water bills. It has added rooftop solar panels donated by the Honnold Foundation to several homes to lower tenants’ utility costs. In exchange, the nonprofit asks tenants to pay 30% of their self-reported income on rent, the amount deemed affordable by national housing policymakers.
But after nearly six years, none of the occupants have become homeowners. Ross said that two are in the process of purchasing their homes, but wouldn’t provide Detour with a timeline or either purchase price.
Some Storehouse of Hope tenants likely won’t ever become homeowners. A few elderly and infirm tenants are on fixed incomes or work too irregularly to save enough. Despite the five-year window elapsing, Ross said they will continue to let the occupants stay in their homes at affordable rates.
The high cost of making housing affordable
In the meantime, Storehouse of Hope is bleeding money. According to its 990 tax forms, its average annual revenue between 2017 and 2019 was $27,252 — not enough to cover expenses. It lost over $11,000 in 2018 and 2019, and lost even more in 2020. Ross said the nonprofit waived rent for all tenants for several months during the pandemic and only took in around $14,000 last year.
Ross said she’s gotten a $20,000 loan from an investor and borrowed $80,000 against another nonprofit she runs, North End Woodward Community Collective, to keep things going. Tax foreclosure notices sometimes appear on residents’ doors, but Storehouse of Hope has managed to pay just in time to prevent foreclosure. (Property owners don’t face tax foreclosure until they are more than two years delinquent on their bills.)
“Every February and March, we pay the oldest tax bill so [a home] doesn’t get lost,” Ross said. “The properties are never going to be lost to foreclosure.”
At least, the occupied ones. Storehouse of Hope currently owns only 10 homes, down from the 15 it originally purchased, because the others no longer had tenants and Storehouse of Hope let them go into tax foreclosure.
“This is a little tiny nonprofit struggling to keep the doors open,” Ross said. “We’ve never gotten any grant dollars for the program, always strictly what we could raise or had coming in through rent.”
Joshua Akers, an associate professor of Geography and Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, said that Storehouse of Hope’s financial model isn’t sustainable. “Typically with land trusts,” he said, “funds are pooled up front to manage the various costs and continued development that allows the trust to operate.”
Because tenants continue to pay rent, he said, Storehouse of Hope is “a land trust in name only.”
In 2018, Storehouse of Hope filed an eviction against Smith-Bey for nonpayment of rent. Smith-Bey said she temporarily withheld rent in that period because of Storehouse of Hope’s lack of progress on her home repairs. The request to terminate her tenancy was dismissed by a judge at the 36th District Court.
In a letter attached to court documents from the eviction filing, Smith-Bey wrote, “My desire is to remain in my home. I also hope you will be mindful of the promises made concerning fixing up the house. I am confident the problems of the past with paying rent on time will not be a problem going forward.”
The letter makes it hard to believe Ross wasn’t aware of the problems with Smith-Bey’s house. Ross said she’d never seen it before.
Since Smith-Bey again stopped paying rent in 2019, Storehouse of Hope has issued two Notice to Quits — the first step for a landlord to initiate eviction but not a formal filing — including one during the pandemic. Ross said they were a desperate attempt to communicate with Smith-Bey and find out why she hadn’t paid rent.
After the blight violations began piling up last fall, Ross said she tried to send contractors to the house to do work, but Smith-Bey wouldn’t let them inside.
Smith-Bey disputes this claim. She said one contractor came and took measurements for her back stairs. Another nailed inadequate supports underneath the porch roof to prevent it from collapsing, which was cited twice by the city’s buildings and safety department because it was an “imminent danger” and Storehouse of Hope never pulled a construction permit.
“If I’m complaining and telling you this needs to be done, why wouldn’t I allow you in?” Smith-Bey said. “Do you think I really want mold growing under my kitchen stove, my roof leaking, rain coming through the light fixtures so I’m afraid to get electrocuted? No.”
The fact that communication has so thoroughly broken down between Ross and Smith-Bey is hard to square with the circumstances of Storehouse of Hope’s other tenants. Detour visited the nonprofit’s nine other homes and found all of them to be in acceptable condition, except for one, which is currently unoccupied. All of the occupied homes had new or secure roofs, and several had solar panels.
One tenant, Betty Hansborough, 71, has been thoroughly pleased with her experience with Storehouse of Hope. She’s lived in her house on Rowe Street since 1995, raising all five of her kids there. But after retiring as a Greyhound bus driver, she fell behind on her taxes and her home went into foreclosure before Storehouse of Hope bought it.
“For me, they were angels sent from heaven,” Hansborough said. “I really didn’t want to leave.”
Storehouse put a new roof and solar panels on her house, which has lowered her electricity bills, and she pays $291 per month in rent.
“Where can you live in Detroit at $291 a month, be comfortable and your house isn’t falling down?” Hansborough said.
Buying the home on a fixed income would be difficult, however, so Hansborough plans to keep renewing her lease as long as Storehouse of Hope allows it.
Another tenant, who spoke to Detour on the condition of anonymity, had a more mixed experience. While they were happy their home wasn’t lost to tax foreclosure, they said Storehouse of Hope has been slow to move on repairs and help them work towards homeownership.
An unclear future
Creating viable, sustainable models for affordable housing has been a mostly elusive goal for think tanks, policymakers and established nonprofit developers alike. When developers take on a project with an affordability component, it almost always comes with grants or tax credits that cover a substantial portion of the cost. Except for the initial donations used almost entirely to purchase the homes and some solar arrays, Storehouse of Hope has gotten neither. Those are hurdles that have stymied the nonprofit’s admirable goal; but also predictable ones that weren’t adequately planned for and laid the foundation for the dispute with Smith-Bey.
Projects like community land trusts “can work in Detroit,” said Akers. “But they do take capital up front, a long-term development strategy and a coalition of willing partners that includes those living in the homes. Unfortunately, [Storehouse of Hope] is missing a number of fundamental components that allow a land trust to flourish and be effective.”
Storehouse of Hope responded to an emergency: the imminent loss of people’s homes. But it also didn’t have a clear path forward to return those people to homeownership. And while its efforts to maintain the housing at affordable rental rates are well intentioned, it can’t continue indefinitely unless people take ownership of their own properties, relieving Storehouse of Hope of the financial burden of caring for the full upkeep of every home.
In Smith-Bey’s case, there’s an additional hurdle to homeownership — the protracted dispute with Ross. Desperate to settle her housing situation, Smith-Bey reached out to Detroit Eviction Defense for help at the beginning of 2021. In coordination with mission-aligned groups Charlevoix Villages Association and Detroit Will Breathe, they’ve been putting increasingly greater pressure on Ross and Storehouse of Hope to give Smith-Bey back her home through blog posts, a Facebook Live tour of the home, rallies and appeals for officials like City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield to intervene.
The campaign finally brought both parties to the table in March to negotiate selling the home back to Smith-Bey without participation in the land trust. But talks quickly broke down.
Ross offered to sell the home for all expenses incurred by Storehouse of Hope — property taxes, water bills, blight tickets and $5,161 she said was spent on repairs in 2015 — totaling $14,173.89.
Smith-Bey refuted that any repairs were done and said she shouldn’t be paying for blight tickets when Storehouse of Hope was responsible for maintenance. She countered with $3,000, but hasn’t gotten a response from Ross in over two weeks. Ross told Detour that her offer “is not acceptable to us.”
It doesn’t appear like either side is willing to budge. “We can always sell our property to somebody else,” Ross said. “Or wait for the eviction moratorium to be lifted and go that route.”
Smith-Bey is determined to get her home back. She’s gotten quotes for a new roof and porch for around $25,000. Brian Silverstein, a member of Charlevoix Villages Association, said the justice groups would launch a fundraiser for her and are very confident they’d get enough donations to fix up her home. But they don’t want to do it unless she becomes its owner; as a tenant she’d risk losing the investment if Storehouse of Hope issued another Notice to Quit.
Meanwhile, Smith-Bey and her sons continue to live in unsafe conditions and are desperate to resolve the situation.
“This can all go away with a stroke of her pen, signing over the deed to my home,” she said. “Then I can stop hurting. My kids can stop hurting. And her reputation can be saved.”