Residential Realtors Prevent Decline of Detroit Neighborhoods

Detroit residents learned to become informal realtors to keep foreclosures from being targeted by scrappers and drug dealers.

| April 2017

  • The housing market collapse caused several vacancies in Detroit.
    Photo By Adobe Stock/James Martin
  • “DIY Detroit,” by Kimberly Kinder, explains the complicated life in Detroit after the housing market collapse created widespread vacancies.
    Cover courtesy University of Minnesota Press

DIY Detroit (University of Minnesota Press, 2016), by Kimberly Kinder, reveals the aftermath of the market collapse and its creation of widespread foreclosures. Kinder explains how Detroit’s informal resident realtors work to fill vacancies to keep scrappers and drug dealers out of neighborhoods. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Seeking New Neighbors.

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“Are you looking for someone?” A twenty something, muscular Latino man stood, arms crossed, tattoos glimmering, watching me from a nearby porch. I was surveying vacant lots, and I had lingered to inspect a thin strip of bare dirt sandwiched between two tall houses, one occupied and the other boarded and vacant. “Are you looking for someone?” he repeated. It was a polite but firm question commonly used in the neighborhood to assess the purpose and legitimacy of strangers. “No,” I answered. We exchanged names. I gestured vaguely toward the patch of dirt and told Rey I was looking at some empty properties. Rey, assuming I meant the vacant house and not the empty lot, told me its story.

In 2012 Rey’s neighbors walked away from the house over an outstanding debt of $2,400. Several months passed before the bank foreclosed and took formal possession of the building. By then, scrappers had already removed the copper pipes, hot-water heater, and plumbing fixtures. Bank subcontractors renovated the house three times over the following four months. Each time, the new appliances and equipment were stolen within a matter of days. Then, Rey’s two young children began finding hypodermic needles on the sidewalk. Rey started to fear the “crackheads hanging out in the shadows” by the building’s open doors and windows.

Taking steps to deter scrappers and drug dealers

Fed up with the theft and drug activity festering from the bank’s botched management, Rey took action. He became an informal advocate for the house. When bank contractors began a fourth round of renovations, Rey insisted they secure the doors and windows with fourteen-gauge reinforced steel plates every afternoon before leaving the job site, and he chained his personal guard dog to the porch every night. During the day Rey assisted free of charge with simple manual labor tasks, giving him an excuse to monitor the work — and workmen — on a daily basis. It also gave him an opportunity to memorize the building’s specifications: its size and layout, the renovations completed, the materials used, and the quality of the craftsmanship. This knowledge was useful when, at Rey’s insistence, bank officials agreed not to advertise the vacancy. Rey promised to find “a good buyer” for the house himself.

A month had passed since then. The renovations were still intact, and Rey’s children had stopped finding needles while playing. “It’s a good house,” Rey told me. “Big, with a good layout.” He asked if I wanted to see inside or if maybe I’d like to move in and become his new neighbor. I felt bad saying I couldn’t buy the house, but it did not remain empty for long. A few weeks later, Rey convinced the cousin of another family on the block to move in, instead.

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