Clarkdale Street in Southwest Detroit. Credit: Dan Klein
Dalia Reyes loved her childhood home in Southwest Detroit. She and her two brothers were raised there, her grandparents lived in the upper unit and the family knew everyone on the block. So when she had the opportunity to buy it back this spring several years after her mom lost it to foreclosure, she jumped at it.
“A lot of people on that street had been there for a long time,” said Reyes, 36. “It was within walking distance to everything I needed: my schools, my job, my friends. It was an awesome place.”
Earlier she had watched the home on Clarkdale Street slip out of her family’s grasp through a combination of inflated tax bills, an uncooperative Land Bank and bad luck. As a result, her family lost out on an asset that’s seen substantial appreciation in the last few years as the largely Latino, working-class neighborhood has gone through major changes.
Reyes, an interdisciplinary artist and director of contemporary art at Galerie Camille in Midtown, lived in the 2,500-square-foot white-vinyl duplex until 2013. In 2016, the home went through tax foreclosure — at that point, Reyes estimated they owed around $10,000 in back taxes. Reyes’ parents got divorced in the early 2000s, and her mother had trouble keeping up with all the bills and home maintenance.
The timing was unfortunate. One year after the foreclosure, a citywide reassessment decreased tax bills for a majority of residents. During the previous seven years, Detroit homeowners had collectively been overtaxed an estimated $600 million. A Detroit News analysis found that 90% of homes with delinquent taxes were overtaxed by an average of $3,700. The Reyes house was one of about 30,000 occupied homes that went into tax foreclosure between 2013 and 2017, according to property data company Loveland Technologies.
Trying to return home
After foreclosure, the Clarkdale property (and many others like it) was transferred from Wayne County to the Detroit Land Bank, a quasi-public agency that acts as the repository for city-owned property, holding vast numbers of homes and lots which it sells through an assortment of programs. But the Reyes home remained in its inventory.
Reyes, who now rents an apartment in Southwest, started to seriously look into buying back her childhood home in the last year. She was personally attached to it, but she also had dreams of turning it into a community art space.
She appealed to the Land Bank, but she said they declined to sell it to her directly and instead would let her know when it was available. “They didn’t do anything, didn’t try to help me get my house back,” Reyes said.
Alyssa Strickland, a spokesperson for the Land Bank, told Detour by email that had Reyes’ mother still been living in the house, she would have been eligible for the Buy Back program, which provides a pathway to homeownership for people living in Land Bank-owned houses. But the program only started in 2017, after the county had foreclosed on her and she moved out.
And the agency doesn’t have a sales policy that gives preference to buyers with prior connections to a property. “We followed our standard Auction policy with Ms. Reyes and the other buyers that inquired about this property,” Strickland wrote, “which is to provide notice a couple of weeks in advance of the Auction so they are aware and prepared to bid.”
The Land Bank informed Reyes on April 1 that an auction for the Clarkdale house would take place on April 17. She started a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds, but didn’t receive nearly enough money to be competitive.
“[The Land Bank] didn’t give me any ability to plan,” Reyes said.
After just a few minutes, Reyes knew the bidding, which started at $1,000, had gotten too high for her. “To watch it go up that high was crazy and traumatizing,” Reyes told Detour. “I did not have a chance.”
Another buyer won the auction with a bid of $101,200 — a high amount given that the home from 1914 requires significant investment. A condition report prepared by the Land Bank found that the roof, windows, doors, porch, indoor stairs, electrical wiring and plumbing all either need to be replaced or repaired.
Even before Ford announced its $740 million redevelopment of Michigan Central Station in nearby Corktown in 2018, home prices in Southwest Detroit had been rising fast. But the Reyes family didn’t benefit from those increased values. And they weren’t the only ones.
A starter home he repaired himself, then lost
Adrian Flores grew up across the street from the Reyes family. “We’ve been friends since we were kids,” he said. “We would spend like half the time at their house. We were really close — like family.”
When Flores was 16 years old, his father bought an abandoned house next door and told him if he fixed it up, he could live there. Flores said his family put around $25,000 into the house and he did most of the work himself. “There were five-foot holes in the roof. It was bad,” he said. “I drywalled it, put in new electrical and two new bathrooms.”
Two years later, in 2004, Flores and his wife Maria moved into the house with their first child.
A family emergency forced them to move to Texas for a few years, and Flores’ father stopped paying taxes on property. When he moved back in 2015, Flores had an outstanding tax bill of more than $7,000. After pooling money together, he and his family managed to pay off most of the back taxes and got on a payment plan. But the very next year, after he said he missed one payment, the county foreclosed on him. In 2017, the home was sold at the annual county tax auction.
“They profited off the thing,” Flores said. “They made money off me and then sold it.”
A spokesman for the Wayne County Treasurer declined to provide more details about the foreclosure.
The Reyes and Flores families owned properties on a block in a gentrifying neighborhood. Whether due to inability to intervene or indifference at the city and county level, they both lost their homes after years of struggling to pay likely inflated tax bills. They lost out on appreciating assets — as well as sources of stability that kept them connected to their community.
Flores’ home sold again late last year for $134,000.
“I’ve pretty much made peace with it, but it was terrible at the time,” Flores said. “It’s one of those things you can’t help but think about.”
This article was produced in partnership with the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.