Detroit residents learned to become informal realtors to keep foreclosures from being targeted by scrappers and drug dealers.
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.”
To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.
“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.
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.
Rey had essentially become an impromptu “resident realtor,” an apt phrase describing neighbors who work unofficially to help homes find new occupants. The economic recession and housing market crash of the late 2000s doubled residential vacancy rates citywide. Residents responded to this massive change in many ways. Some people absorbed vacancy by transforming duplexes into single-family homes or buying and demolishing vacant structures next door. Others bought homes to rent or sell at a loss just to get them back on the market. A smaller subset of residents organized promotional home tours, mural tours, potlucks, sock hops, garden tours, holiday celebrations, and award banquets to build a neighborhood “buzz.”
For residents like Rey, buying and maintaining extra housing wasn’t practical. He did not have the money, and he did not want to be a landlord. The real estate buzz from mural tours and taco trucks did not help him directly, either. With nearly 1,500 empty units in his neighborhood, it was unlikely one of the few newcomers inspired to move into the neighborhood would choose the unadvertised and repeatedly vandalized house next door. And so, like countless other residents, Rey became an informal realtor and matchmaker, searching for just the right person — a friend, family member, or kindred spirit — to move onto his block.
Matchmaking took many forms. Residents drew on personal connections of kinship and friendship to identify potential recruits. Matchmaking arrangements generally involved quid pro quo, with residents offering financial or logistical assistance to ensure that newcomers moved into specified vacancies and not other units farther away. Among these recruits some became official owners or renters, and others lived informally as squatters. The criteria residents used to select potential occupants varied depending on block conditions and personal relationships, but subjective morality judgments were paramount. Matchmakers helped people gain access to housing they otherwise could not afford or may not have found. In exchange matchmakers expected the peace of mind that came from having a trusted — or at least known — person fill an otherwise troubling vacancy.
Half of the residents I interviewed (51 percent) described acting as informal resident realtors, and that number was consistent across all four neighborhoods, regardless of differences in income levels and vacancy rates. Community organizations developed formal programs to combat vacancy as well, and resident realtors often appealed to those groups for help in dealing with specific homes on their blocks. But since organizations had limited financial resources and preexisting programmatic commitments, organization leaders generally refused those requests. Even in areas with strong community groups, many resident realtors said they worked mostly alone.
Among homeowners, residents like Rey had vested financial interests in stabilizing local property values, but matchmaking was rarely mercenary. Residents recruited newcomers for emotional and practical reasons. They wanted to support family members, build alternative communities, deter vandalism, and eliminate uncertainty. Matchmakers helped young relatives and aging parents buy or rent the vacant units next door. They helped friends and family members facing financial difficulties become informal caretakers living unofficially in vacant homes. These squatters often paid utility bills and sometimes paid taxes, but they did not pay rent. Matchmakers also helped socially conscious friends and colleagues build communities whose alternative lifestyles and philosophies mirrored their own. Even when these arrangements did not create ideal living conditions, they still offered significant benefits for both the matchmaker and their recruits.
Matchmaking was a means of negotiating disinvestment. Property markets in Detroit created vacancy not occupancy. But disinvestment was not evenly distributed citywide, and resident realtors pulling people from other neighborhoods reinforced that lumpiness. Matchmaking created geographic clusters of people who shared common bloodlines or common interests. Markets still mattered, but disinvestment created a context where personal connections, social reciprocity, and subjective morality judgments became especially important mechanisms reorganizing people in space.
The general logic of matchmaking was exclusionary not egalitarian. Connecting friends with desirable homes and neighborhoods was as much about keeping “problem people” away as it was about bringing preapproved people in. With property markets collapsing, residents feared that vacancies left to the marketplace would attract low-income residents who would not maintain their property or who would bring “nuisance” behaviors from their old neighborhoods with them. An even greater fear was housing would remain vacant and become prime targets for the underground economies of scrapping and drug dealing. Despite the sympathy matchmakers felt for low-income families climbing the housing ladder, matchmaking was fundamentally about replacing faltering market mechanisms of class-based exclusion with personal judgments about the people residents felt would make good neighbors.
Resident realtors represent a category of self-provisioners who are easy to overlook. Matchmaking leaves no overt telltale signs in the street. Houses become occupied, but the history of how people came to be in those spaces fades from view. These market-buttressing practices also lack the guerilla romance of the urban gardeners, installation artists, street sweepers, trash collectors, watchdogs, spies, and blackmailers. But scrutinizing this everyday form of self-provisioning underscores that instead of embracing Detroit’s “free spaces” as sites of autonomy and liberation, most residents wanted to live in neighborhoods with functioning housing markets and conventional lifestyles. If recruiting new residents failed to stabilize markets, only then did residents adopt more explicitly insurgent strategies of spatial appropriation.