Detroit’s North End neighborhood is shown in this BridgeDetroit file photo. (BridgeDetroit photo by Malachi Barrett)

A street-level outreach campaign plans to knock on 60,000 doors across Detroit to raise awareness of social programs to prevent tax foreclosure and collect data to inform future philanthropic investments. 

The Rocket Community Fund’s “Neighbor to Neighbor” program began in 2017 but was suspended in 2020 and 2021 and then shifted to a phone canvassing effort last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Canvassers with more than a dozen community organizations are back on the block and will visit the neighborhoods where their organizations work in the next four months. Organizers are spreading the word about tax relief programs like Detroit’s Homeowners Property Exemption (HOPE) and Pay as You Stay (PAYS), and the Gilbert Family Foundation’s Detroit Tax Relief Fund

The effort is also used to gather data used by the Rocket Community Fund to identify gaps in programs meant to address property tax foreclosure, displacement and housing instability. Executive Director Laura Grannemann said the program targets residents who are behind at least one year on their property taxes.

“We want to make sure that we’re getting as far ahead of that issue as possible, because the longer you’re in tax delinquency, the harder it is to get out of tax delinquency for many folks,” Grannemann told BridgeDetroit at the Mackinac Policy Conference. “Some of them we have had contact with in previous years. Some of them are going to be new.” 

The foundation is adding a new question this year focused on internet access.

Data collected through phone canvassing in 2022 found 59% of respondents did not have homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, which helps protect against unforeseen accidents and can be a tool for addressing home repair needs. Eight out of 10 respondents said they need to make at least one significant home repair. 

“We heard a lot from folks that they had problems with windows, porches and HVAC systems,” Grannemann said. “Those were some of the things that stuck out to us, which we can then quickly use to inform our current set of home repair investments.” 

Eight out of 10 respondents said they did not have an estate plan or a will to manage the disposition of their property after their death. Grannemann said this can lead to “tangled titles” and result in the loss of generational wealth for Detroiters.

Grannemann said the data on estate planning is “eye-opening,” because the transfer of property through a court-supervised probate process can quickly become stressful for families if a will isn’t drafted before a homeowner dies. 

“Sometimes it’s not obvious, you’ve got siblings or cousins or if it’s grandma’s house, you might have 10 people who think that they have an interest in that property,” Grannemann said. “It’s not always easy to figure out who is the sole owner. That can be really traumatic for families, it can be cost intensive, and it’s just much better if we avoid it altogether by doing some pre-planning.”

Grannemann said it was a hidden issue, but data collected through the phone survey helped convince the foundation to consider programs to help residents with estate planning. 

“We’re working with partners to figure out what that looks like,” she said. “The solution is twofold. One is increased capacity for legal aid, folks who can walk people through the process and support them. Two is layering in the importance of creating a proactive plan. Our goal would be to not have anybody go through the probate process because they will have already created estate plans.”

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