Michigan struggles expose failure of ruling-class policies

Demo-at-Treasurer2-3-31-15-650pxMembers of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shut-offs and other community-based organizations held a demonstration outside the Wayne County Treasurer’s Office on March 23 demanding a moratorium on the scheduled 30,000 tax foreclosures set for March 31.

During 2015, a similar campaign won a halt to tax foreclosures for approximately 70 days, allowing residents of Wayne County to make arrangements to pay their obligations. This postponement of foreclosures last year by the Treasurer’s Office only provided a temporary measure to ease the flow of the inevitable dislocation of tens of thousands more people around and outside the city.

Just one week prior to the protest, a delegation of activists from the Moratorium NOW! Coalition, Detroit Eviction Defense, Russell Woods Neighborhood Association, Charlevoix Village Association, and residents of Rosedale Park, Woodbridge and others met with acting Treasurer Eric Sabree to call for a halt to the massive foreclosures that will drive more African-American, Latino and working-class people out of the city and Wayne County.

Sabree and his staff said that they could not declare a moratorium since it was against state laws and that they had no alternative except to foreclose on occupied homes. He pointed to the numerous programs available to assist homeowners short of a total halt to the seizures.

Pat Driscoll, of Detroit Eviction Defense, pointed out that during the previous decade there were instances when former Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz removed thousands of homes from the foreclosures roles. Erroll Jennings, of Russell Woods on the city’s west side, brought deed abstracts from his family home documenting property tax moratoriums imposed in the mid-1930s.

Several of the participants at the demonstration were themselves victims of the housing crisis. Jennette Shannon, of Detroit Eviction Defense, has faced down over 20 eviction attempts by the courts, which she has fought in order to keep her home on the northwest side, purchased through a (fraudulent) land contract.

With the large-scale foreclosures of homes, small businesses, churches and lots in the city, so-called “investors and developers” are given priority to purchase over those seeking to redeem their homes. These real estate scavengers have bought thousands of structures and vacant land in the city. In many cases, they resell the homes without paying back property taxes and other liens.

Consequently, when working-class people buy these houses through land contracts, they are often swindled out of them, along with their hard-earned money. Often within months, they are sent eviction notices for nonpayment of taxes, including water bills.

Shannon told WW outside the Treasurer’s Office, “I received 400 delinquent water bills for commercial accounts. My backyard was mortgaged for $300,000 after the home was divided into two separate parcels without my knowledge.”

One major reason why people are buying homes on land contracts is because the banks are not writing mortgages in the city. In 2015, less than 400 mortgages were issued for the entire city of nearly 700,000 people.

Nonetheless, after homes are seized by the county, thousands of them wind up being taken over by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, which is the largest property owner in the city. The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, chaired by Dan Gilbert, owner of Quicken Loans, is one of the major players in the current crisis of forced removals and privatization.

After occupied and foreclosed as well as abandoned homes and businesses are identified for seizure by the Blight Task Force, they are taken over by the DLBA. Every month hundreds of homes are claimed by  the Wayne County Circuit Court, which is overseen by Judge Robert E. Colombo Jr.

Financial interests to blame

Moreover, what cannot be overlooked are the underlying causes of the housing crisis in Detroit and Wayne counties — the central role of the banks through the initiation of predatory loan schemes during the 1990s and early 2000s, which resulted in tens of thousands of evictions and the further deterioration of neighborhoods across the city and its suburbs.

Political officials, either not understanding the magnitude of the crisis or unwilling to confront the perpetrators, repeatedly refused to impose a moratorium on the banks’ actions and declare a state of emergency based on the concrete conditions facing the municipalities.

The failure of local governmental entities to stand up to the banks, and the successive Democratic and Republican governors and legislatures in Lansing, has worsened the continuing crises of community desolation and disinvestment. Michigan was the only state to lose population in the last census of 2000-10, further weakening municipalities and school systems.

Schools and municipal services collapsing

These same bank-led policies constitute the basis of the Detroit Public Schools debacle, where new legislation is in the works to further disenfranchise local people. The corporate media never mention that effective control of the DPS has been the official policy of the state since 1999 under then Governor John Engler, a Republican.

After over five years of direct state administration, a board was elected in 2005 that was still heavily corporate dominated. By 2009, yet another emergency manager was appointed who was only accountable to then Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.

When Engler took over the DPS in 1999, the system had a $93 million surplus, along with voter-approved $1.5 billion in bond funding designated for school improvement. Under emergency management, the system is on the verge of bankruptcy, with a reported $3.5 billion debt.

Conditions are so deplorable that teachers have recenlty engaged in a series of wildcat strikes demanding better working conditions. Buildings have been neglected under this form of administration; mold, water leaks, lack of heating and other problems have not been addressed.

Part of the new state legislative plan places significant control of the DPS under corporate-installed Mayor Mike Duggan, the first white mayor in four decades. Many Detroit educators believe this is just another scheme to siphon public money allocated for schools into the coffers of private interests.

Former Detroit Public Schools teacher Richard Clay said during the March 23 demonstration, “The present plan is designed to finish off the system for good.”   

Also, the water crises in both Flint and Detroit stem from a privatized governance model that endangers hundreds of thousands of people through massive shut-offs and poisoning.

During the Detroit bankruptcy proceeding in 2013-14, emergency management functionaries acknowledged that the massive water shut-offs were part of the restructuring of the city.

Although a two-month moratorium was declared on water shutoffs after pressure was exerted through mass and legal actions led by the Moratorium NOW! Coalition during July 2014, a task force established by the Duggan administration and the City Council has rejected any form of an “affordability plan” for clients of both the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the Great Lakes Regional Water Authority.

These developments in Michigan illustrate clearly the disastrous consequences of corporate rule over municipalities and state structures. Other states around the U.S. are suffering similar problems manifested through school closings, teacher layoffs, privatization of public services, evictions of working-class and poor residents, escalating police and judicial repression, environmental degradation, burgeoning poverty, etc.

Only the redistribution of wealth stolen from city residents can begin to ameliorate the problems of declining schools, neighborhoods and municipal services. A mass movement led by workers, residents, students and youth is the only alternative to worsening austerity under corporate control.