It’s not fake news, but that doesn’t mean it matters
There is a twice weekly “walk-in clinic” at the offices of one of the very few places low-income Detroiters can get legal help with housing issues. The day I was there the waiting room and even the hallways of the United Community Housing Coalition were full by 9:30 a.m.
Albert Williams was one of the many Detroiters there for advice about how to navigate the annual Wayne County Tax Auction coming at the end of the summer. Williams was renting a home bought in the 2014 tax auction by a small time speculator who lives in California. The landlord didn’t pay the taxes so as a renter Williams was about to pay for that oversight. The house he lives in is tax foreclosure and can be auctioned out from under him putting him at risk of eviction even though he’s always paid his rent on time and never broken his lease. Williams has the money to buy the place — in the auction homes can go for as little as $500 — but he’ll have to get lucky to outbid and outmaneuver speculators that see the tax auction as a property giveaway.
Over the past few months, I’ve talked to somebody with a story like Williams’ probably once a week. Wayne County itself estimated there were about 4,000 people in this situation this year though now they say the number is closer to 1,500.
Advocates like the lawyers at the United Community Housing Coalition have been actively working for years to push the city and county to treat occupied homes differently in the auction. At the very least they would like renters to get a leg up in the auction in some way, so they don’t have to go up against speculators who often lose interest in the homes and don’t keep them occupied or in good condition. The rate at which homes bid on in the auction go back into tax foreclosure is stunningly high and the effects are seismic. The city has foreclosed on an estimated 1 in 4 properties between just 2011 and 2015.
As a journalist, the number of interests and institutions with a stake in this slow rolling fiasco makes it hard to decide where to focus my reporting. So, that day in the hall at the Housing Coalition I asked Williams, “Who do you think needs to step up here?”
I was curious if he felt the inaction of the city or the action of the county was more to blame for his situation. “The media!” he answered me. He smacked one palm with his other fist for emphasis.
I knew it was true.
I spent a few days feeling angry that as journalists we haven’t done enough to hold institutions and interests accountable to Detroit residents. We haven’t even broken through the noise. We haven’t inspired more people to get interested in how much the future of Detroit is determined through these annual home auctions. This is so not fake news so why don’t more people care?
Recently though, I’ve felt good about what Williams said. He wasn’t scapegoating the media, but he was disappointed in us. Williams didn’t expect the city or the county to step up for him because he lost faith in them a long time ago. But the “news,” he still expected more from us and we have let him down. We shouldn’t care about getting everyone to care when what we can do is get Williams the information he needs.
We have a lot to do to make this right. This summer I got a small grant from the Jim Bettinger Innovation Fund, a pot of money that has been a lifeline to a small journalism organization. Outlier texts high-value information to Detroiters with a focus on renters. People get a text back with the tax status of their home and who the real owner is. They can also get a follow up in case they have other housing questions they think a reporter could help get to the bottom of.
When I applied for the money, I wanted to use it to expand my footprint so to speak. I wanted to try and finally get a handle on the number of land contracts in Detroit. Land contracts are flexible person to person real estate deals that have been ubiquitous in Detroit since the housing crash. They seem predatory but nobody has been able to get a real handle it, and I just wanted to answer some of those questions and get real data for those stories.
Then I met Albert Williams, and I had to change course. I don’t doubt that if other journalists and I better understood land contracts we could produce some valuable content. Down the road, we might be able to figure out what the information gaps for residents in these deals are and we might be able to fill them. We might be able to increase accountability. We might get more people to care. But who knows?
Albert Williams made me think harder about being willing to engage in this kind of experiment. He has information needs right now. He wants more accountability right now. He expects me and other journalists to get this done right now.
I scrapped the land contract project. Instead, I got a list of all the addresses the county thinks are occupied and are up for auction. Using Outlier’s strategy of buying cell phone numbers to reach news consumers, I bought as many numbers associated with just those addresses as I could and some landline numbers too.
All summer I’ve been sending out batches of texts to residents all over the city. I’m chasing down leads for them on speculators, poverty exemptions that could have saved homes but never materialized and water shut offs that compound their problems.
Some of these leads I’m writing about. Some of them I pass along to other journalists who do great things with them. Most of these interactions don’t go beyond a text exchange or a phone call that typically end in a simple “thank you.” I’m doing my job and I know my news consumers appreciate it.
Detroit’s journalism environment is incredibly collaborative. Other journalists here are happy to follow up on stories and sources I send their way. We share sources, insights, data, and in some cases code. I don’t know how quickly we can arm residents with more powerful information to help them hold their landlords or the city or the county more accountable.
Albert Williams still doesn’t own his house. He’s reluctant to give up because the place is just down the block from his mother. That’s why he moved there, so he could be closer to her after his father passed away. I check in with Mr. Williams regularly and he’s hopeful he might be able to work something out with the city. When there is information I can chase down for him or a story he’d like help telling I hope I can be helpful. I’m grateful to him for holding me accountable and keeping me focused on filling the information needs people want filled-instead of chasing the stories only I’m interested in. I’m trying to step up.