Thousands of people who bought “extremely blighted” properties through a land bank program designed to reduce barriers to homeownership now owe a combined $7 million in delinquent property tax debt.
Half of all homes purchased through the Detroit Land Bank Authority’s Own It Now program between 2015 and 2021 owe $250 or more in delinquent property taxes, according to Wayne County treasurer data as of April 1. The program offers vacant homes for a minimum of $1,000, but with a catch: The properties are uninhabitable when sold and require extensive repairs.
Detroiters who bought homes through Own It Now say their purchases presented them with the dilemma of using their money to make renovations in time to satisfy land bank deadlines, or keep up with taxes. Neglecting either could cause homeowners to lose their property through tax foreclosure or by falling out of compliance with the land bank’s rehabilitation requirements.
“It’s very stressful, now you’re responsible for property taxes, and I have to keep up with this too on top of everything else,” said Detroit resident La’Keah Valentine, who completed a home renovation through Own It Now. “I don’t feel that’s fair because who is to say I complete my house? If I don’t complete my house by paying my taxes then you take my house back from me.”
DLBA officials say Own It Now makes homeownership more accessible for those who lack access to traditional financing. DLBA spokeswoman Alyssa Strickland said 4,699 properties successfully achieved compliance and 942 did not meet rehab obligations and were taken back into the DLBA’s inventory.
“There’s some inherent risk that people may choose to get involved who can’t see it through financially. That’s a risk we have to take and is worth taking,” Strickland said. “Banks and others have been the decision-maker on whether someone should be able to buy a house. We’re flipping the script on that. There’s a very low (cost) of entry, and (the land bank) is making opportunities available to as many people as possible so that they can participate in homeownership in a meaningful way.”
But as the program grows, more buyers are running into expensive problems and going into tax delinquency, raising concerns about whether the program is helping neighborhoods recover. Failed renovations prevent residents from becoming homeowners and stall efforts to reduce the number of blighted properties.
“If someone fails and the house goes back into foreclosure, does it end up back in a blighted cycle? Yes, but if no one buys it at all, it’s just going to continue to sit in our inventory and rot further and eventually require demolition,” Strickland said. “This is at least a chance, not only at saving the house, but more importantly, making somebody a homeowner.”
More Own It Now properties were sold in 2020 (2,423) than any other year, according to city data. Sales jumped by 97% between 2018 and 2019, then rose by another 75% a year later. Own It Now sales cooled off in 2021 and dropped back to pre-pandemic level by 2022.
Tax debt grew alongside the sales, according to Wayne County treasurer data analyzed by Alex Alsup, vice president of research and development at parcel data company Regrid. Alsup found Own it Now sales rose by 191% from January 2020 to January 2023 while the number of tax delinquent properties grew by 351%.
Alsup said the data suggests people who buy Own It Now homes are biting off more than they can chew. An inexperienced buyer attracted by the low price point may not realize the extent of repair costs, then find themselves unable to rehabilitate the property and pay their taxes.
“This is definitely a problem,” said Alsup, “It’s hard to get repairs done in Detroit unless you have a lot of access to capital. It’s easy to jump in at $1,000, but it’s hard to get this work done.”
There are 4,196 properties with overdue property taxes, for a total of $6.8 million owed. The average delinquent homeowner owes $1,618 while the average sale price was $2,787. That means 13% of delinquent properties owe more in taxes than the average cost of an Own It Now home.
Wayne County data shows 251 homes sold through Own It Now meet the legal standard for foreclosure, meaning taxes are delinquent for at least two years, but it’s unclear how many properties were lost due to unpaid taxes. A spokesperson for Wayne County Treasurer Eric Sabree said BridgeDetroit can confirm the foreclosure status through a Freedom of Information Act request, which is pending. The land bank could not immediately provide a figure for how many properties have been reclaimed for failing to complete renovations on time.
Since 2015, the land bank has sold $26.8 million in property through Own It Now, according to sales data on Detroit’s open data portal. Properties are sold through a blind auction, intended to help keep prices low.
DLBA Planning Director Robert Linn said many buyers intentionally delay tax payments while putting money toward repairs first.
Lin said when sales surged during the COVID-19 pandemic new homeowners likely found themselves facing inflated costs and supply problems causing them to put off paying taxes. Costs continue to rise even as the pandemic wanes; federal data shows household furnishings and supply prices rose nearly 6% in the last year.
“A lot of this is really tied to folks who are struggling with the competing challenges of doing rehab but also doing it during a pandemic,” Linn said. “Doing a rehab of a land bank house is an inherently challenging enterprise for anyone, especially if you’re doing it check-to-check or self-financed.”
‘I feel the loss’
That’s what happened to Taylor Dill-Reese, who bought an Own It Now home in the Brightmoor neighborhood in 2020. More than two years later, Dill-Reese abandoned the project.
Dill-Reese recently approached her ruined house with trepidation. Broken plywood littered the front lawn. A stranger’s dog leash wrapped around new porch steps that are warped by weather. One window is boarded up, another exposed. The house is in worse shape than when she started renovations. Wayne County treasurer records show $361 in outstanding property taxes.
Seeing the property for the first time in months was disheartening for Dill-Reese, who said she sunk $20,000 into renovations. It feels like a waste.
“I had all these ideas,” Dill-Reese said. “It was going to be an open floor plan in the kitchen and living room. There are rooms upstairs for my kids. I wanted to turn this land into something.”
Brightmoor is among the top neighborhoods where Own It Now homes are sold. City data shows Detroit’s Midwest neighborhood contains the most (687), followed by Dexter-Linwood (371) Brightmoor (294) and Nolan (292).
Dill-Reese’s home was among the few still standing on the block. The neighborhood has been hollowed out from demolition. For every house there are several vacant spaces where neighbors used to be.
Dill-Reese owns a cleaning business that thrived during the pandemic. When she bought the modest four-bedroom bungalow it needed a lot of love, but the foundation seemed solid. Dill-Reese was attracted to the space – she envisioned a playground and community garden on grassy lots flanking both sides of the house.
She got to work on installing a roof, porch, doors and windows. There were headaches with contractors, but the rehab was moving ahead until Dill-Reese learned the water service line was disconnected.
Listings for Own it Now homes include a disclaimer stating the DLBA has no knowledge of the condition of service lines needed to connect a home to the city’s water system. The disclaimer warns that obtaining water service “may be a significant challenge and cost” of $10,000 or more and could be a lead line that requires replacement.
For Dill-Reese, that surprise doomed her dream. She was told it would cost $15,000 to replace the water line, money she didn’t have.
“When I purchased this, it wasn’t disclosed to me,” Dill-Reese said. “(The land bank) should be aware of which house has a water line connection and which ones don’t.”
Dill-Reese said the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department stepped up to pay for the water line replacement, but it was too late. Thieves had already stolen the new windows, stripped out electrical wires, tore off her security door, and ultimately reversed all the work she paid for.
“I’m not about to put any more work into it,” Dill-Reese said. “I’ve wasted $20,000. I’m a single mother. That was a big hit for me and I don’t want to take any more hits.
“I feel the loss. I beat myself up about it. I was thinking about how my family would be financially free once I would own the house.”
Today, Dill-Reese is renting a home in Hazel Park and paying $500 a month toward a loan for a house she doesn’t expect to ever live in. She still wants a permanent home for her kids, but Dill-Reese is hesitant to come back to Detroit.
“I’m definitely not doing anything with the land bank again,” she said.
‘Anything that makes it habitable is gone’
La’Keah Valentine faced an uphill battle to renovate her Own It Now home but managed to get it done. If she could turn back time, Valentine said she wouldn’t do it again.
A friend had completed two rehabs through Own It Now and recommended the program to her. Valentine bought her home in the Hawthorne Park neighborhood from the land bank in 2020 for $1,200. Valentine said buyers should be able to walk through the property before placing a bid, otherwise “you really don’t know what you’re getting into.”
Strickland said private showings are offered to potential Own It Now buyers, who can schedule a visit through the land bank’s website for a $35 fee. Potential buyers are also encouraged to visit properties themselves before bidding, she said.
The typical Own It Now property is around 1,000 square feet and has sat vacant for a few years, Strickland said. Most need window and roof replacements and repairs to drywall, plumbing and electrical systems. Fixtures are stripped out, so homeowners also need to replace sinks, bathtubs, water heaters and furnaces.
“Pretty much anything that makes it habitable is gone before (the house) makes it to our buyers,” Strickland said.
Strickland said anyone who looks at details included in the online listings should come away with a “reasonable expectation” of how much work needs to be put in. Each listing includes a property walkthrough guide outlining general things to look for and estimated costs of typical repairs.
“We want people to know how rough of condition they are and how extremely blighted these properties are before they’re purchasing them,” Strickland said.
Detroit businesswoman Cathryn Coleman has rehabbed 15 land bank homes and owns six Own It Now properties. In a text exchange with BridgeDetroit, Coleman said for those who aren’t experienced with home repair work, it’s an “impossibility to rehab.”
Charon Nogues successfully renovated an Own It Now house she bought from the land bank in 2019. Nouges, a board member of the MorningSide Community Organization, said she and her husband, an architect, made most of the repairs themselves.
“Personally, I’ve had a great experience with the land bank,” Nogues said. “Everything went smooth.”
Another house on her block was sold by the land bank around the same time, Nogues said. The buyer didn’t finish renovations, then listed the property for sale. Nogues said that the next buyer neglected the house, racked up blight violations and it became a magnet for illegal dumping. Then the house went into foreclosure.
“When you have places in that state, people assume nobody cares so people dump all around,” Nogues said. “As soon as they see a little trash out front, they’re like ‘oh, that’s the pile.’ It just attracts more stuff.”
The land bank can reclaim properties if homeowners fail to show progress toward renovations. Purchasers are required to track progress with the land bank’s compliance team, and have six months to complete a list of tasks or show steady progress. Requirements include having a functional kitchen, bathroom, furnace, water heater, active electrical, gas and water connections and more.
Strickland said it’s uncommon for a buyer to reach compliance within six months, most take a year or two to finish. Extensions are generally granted in 90-day increments.
“Our buyers are relying on extensions in order to get their rehabs done,” Strickland said. “The problem arises when people have no contact (with compliance staff) and nothing’s happening at the property. Those are usually the instances where we would have to intervene or where they may not be eligible for extension after extension.”
Valentine said the land bank assigned her three different compliance officers who gave her conflicting advice. She is in the process of closing her case, but recently learned she needed to replace siding that was damaged when a neighboring house caught fire.
“There was a lot of miscommunication between them,” Valentine said. “You have so many different people you’re working with. They’re supposed to give resources, I didn’t get those when I started.”
Strickland said buyers are required to pay for a preliminary inspection from the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department. The report explains what’s needed to bring a house up to code. DLBA also has partnerships with area businesses to provide discounts on goods and services.
Valentine said the land bank gave her little help. The discounts didn’t amount to much savings, she said, and Valentine often found herself needing more guidance on how to find contractors and what repairs were needed before she could move in. Strickland said the land bank doesn’t recommend contractors for liability reasons.
Still, Valentine said a recommendation could have saved her a lot of trouble. The first contractor, she said, ran off with her money. A second sold her a faulty furnace and water heater, she said, and then thieves stole all 15 windows she replaced a month after they were installed. Someone broke in again last fall and stole four windows, a kitchen countertop and sink and a lawnmower.
Valentine said she was lucky to receive help from a nonprofit organization that her brother had a connection to. Otherwise she probably wouldn’t have had the cash to finish the rehab.
Edythe Ford, director of community engagement for MACC Development on Detroit’s east side, noted people who aren’t living in their house are all but guaranteed to miss out on home repair grants and other financial assistance. That’s a real problem, she said, when most Own It Now homes need significant work to be habitable.
“They’re down to the studs and the worst of the worst,” Ford said of land bank homes. “I don’t care who you buy a house from, you need an inspector and you need to know what you’re getting into before you buy it.”
Valentine finished the work and recently moved into the house with her fiance. But she came close to losing the home due to tax foreclosure. Valentine said she wasn’t aware she had to pay taxes until she moved in, since the land bank was listed on her deed and could take her house for noncompliance with the rehabilitation plan.
Valentine said she paid some of the outstanding taxes earlier this year, but Wayne County records show she still owes $400 in back taxes. Valentine said she felt squeezed on both sides. If she prioritized taxes over repairs, she argued, the land bank might take her house. If she prioritized repairs, she might lose the house to foreclosure.
Property owners risk losing their home to the land bank if they fail to show progress, but Strickland said reclaiming property is a “last resort.”
“The goal is to get the property back into private ownership and into productive use,” Strickland said. “We don’t want it in our inventory.”
Valentine said her credit is too poor to qualify for a mortgage, but she should have saved up and waited for her credit to improve instead of going through the “headache” of working with the land bank.
“Don’t get me wrong, to buy a house for $1,200 is amazing, but with what I put into the house I could have paid in cash,” Valentine said.
Eric Dueweke, president of the MorningSide Community Organization, said the land bank should be more aggressive with reclaiming languishing properties.
“If you look at it from the neighborhood perspective, if the house is vacant and nothing’s been done to it then it doesn’t matter whether the land bank still owns it or they sold it to somebody who didn’t do anything with it, the result is the same,” Dueweke said. “If you can’t afford to pay a few hundred bucks in taxes, what are the odds you’re going to spend all the money you have to fix it up?”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Robert Linn’s name.