If someone knocked on your door and said you were about to lose your home, what would you do? This is the dilemma and often earth-shattering reality that many Detroit residents face in the wake of the foreclosure crisis that has ravaged the city for the past decade. In some multi-racial and multi-ethnic communities in Detroit, there is an undersupply of resources for homeownership and support from government officials. To fill the gap left by city, state, and federal government, several organizations have stepped up to study the impacts of pollution and inequality within black communities. Alongside organizations like Loveland Technologies, the United Community Housing Coalition, the Coalition for Property Tax Justice, and Detroit Eviction Defense, allies like Michele Oberholtzer have fought for the end of racial disparities in homeownership in Detroit.
Michele is a grassroots organizer who has fought governmental negligence and social inequality since moving to Hamtramck soon after finishing college. Michele Oberholtzer was born in Royal Oak, and in her adult life graduated from the University of Michigan with an Engineering degree. In her early adulthood, she travelled often and soon discovered an interest in activism and environmental advocacy. After some time in New Yok, she moved to Detroit in search of ways to help make a difference in the lives of others. In an interview, Michele talked a bit about her awakening, “I had people in New York that were talking about buying homes in Detroit, and now I’m meeting the people in the homes, and they don’t even necessarily know that their house is for sale or how to get it, and that just was inconceivable to me.” It was there that she found herself involved with Loveland Technologies—a property surveying company– working as a part-time data analyst.
Nearly one in six occupied homes that entered the 2014 Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction is now vacant — just under 1,000 properties. The job was not activism, but she was able to have real conversations with the residence while surveying their properties. The survey was being conducted as a means of data collection. Michele went from house to house in Detroit to determine the home’s physical condition, and whether it was currently occupied. There, she realized the gap in knowledge between homeowners being foreclosed on, and the options they had to fight it. “I had people in New York that were talking about buying homes in Detroit, and now I’m meeting the people in the homes, and they don’t even necessarily know that their house is for sale or how to get it, and that just was inconceivable to me.” She made a commitment using the resources and data she acquired to be a force for change.
In the last 15 years, one in three Detroit properties have been foreclosed on. The stories that Michele was encountering in her work at Loveland were part of a tidal wave of foreclosures sweeping across Detroit caused by the Great Recession. This era began in 2006 when the housing market started to decline; consequentially, people lost their homes to foreclosure, and some even filed for bankruptcy. Despite the devastation of property values caused by the recession, the city and county failed to re-assess property values in the years since. As a result, they are not in compliance with the state law that requires property taxes to be calculated based on a percentage of the market value. According to A Peoples Atlas of Detroit, unlike other Michigan cities and counties, there has been no reassessment of market value since the economic crisis of 2008. This means that people are paying higher taxes on homes that are overpriced; likewise, there is an 18% interest rate attached to unpaid taxes. Alongside the sweep of tax foreclosures came a wave of unemployment that made it difficult for people to afford neither their homes nor the means to generate income.
To take on this issue, Michele was one of the co-founders of a non-profit called the Tricycle Collective which raised money to help people secure their homes. Wayne County has been benefiting from not only the acquisition of the houses they stole from Detroit homeowners, but the added profit of auctioning them off to the highest bidder. The Tricycle Collective started as a fundraiser that was fueled by her desire to be a resource for others. When going over criticism of potentially lazy homeowners, Michele says, “Well, even if that was true, it’s not the kids’ fault, and certainly we can agree that it would be good for a kid to have a home.” Over the course of five years, Michele targeted homes with tricycles in their yards as the primary candidates for her fundraiser. Seeing that children were becoming victims of eviction, she sought to do something about it. Alongside the fundraiser, she hosted storytelling events to help spread awareness in communities most impacted by the foreclosure crisis.
After collaborating with other activists to inform residents of the potential loss of their homes to the auctions taking place, Michele became employed by the United Community Housing Coalition. The UCHC was one of the base organizations she referred people to during the fundraising life of the Tricycle Collective. They are a non-profit organization that was created in 1973 and have consistently expanded their legal and residential resources throughout the years. As the director of the Tax Foreclosure Prevention Program, Michele delved deeper into the intricacies of the crisis, and help people acquire the knowledge and resources to buy back their homes. This was part of her vision to stop families from facing homelessness, and communities from being decimated.
One division of the UCHC provides lawyers for tenants who are facing eviction without representation. They also have a housing placement program that works to pay the rent/security deposit of people facing imminent homelessness if they do not pay. That program remains underfunded due to the withdrawal of support by HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]. The UCHC remains an organization offering support to Detroit tenants and homeowners despite insufficient funding for its programs. Michele’s overarching goal is not to continue getting by with the policies in place, but to change policy altogether.
Thanks to arbitrary laws that do not consider the personal or financial wellbeing of Michigan homeowners, many of their futures have been impacted negatively; furthermore, Michele is seeking to continue her environmental advocacy, as it is intertwined within the broader scope of community activism. To employ systemic policy change, she has run for the Michigan House of Representatives. Ted Phillips endorsed Michele during her run saying, “I know she’s always somebody that’s looking for ways to help people, to resolve problems. And she is exactly what we need in Lansing. We need people who have worked on the front lines and understand the problem and then sit down to draft solutions. We do not need folks who have never been among those who have needs and who just think up things.”
Michele Oberholtzer and activists like her dedicate themselves to activism and justice to make a difference in our local communities. Young activists can draw on her organizing experiences to combat racial and economic disparities within their own communities. Michele’s vision for the future of Detroit relies heavily on the revaluation/reconstruction of the societal structures at play. Michele said,” I don’t know. One of the things that I really rely on peers for and people who aren’t in the same role that I am is to maintain the bigger picture perspective because when you work with thousands of people every day and you get into the minutia of their water bills and their whatever, it can be hard to maintain the big picture and to remember that we are not just trying to navigate through, we’re trying to change the rules.” It’s a vision that enables kids to play, adults access to the resources they need, and people having agency and autonomy within their communities.
Michele Oberholtzer, interviewed by Peter Blackmer, April 26, 2019, Voices from the Grassroots Oral History Collection, Detroit Equity Action Lab, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Wayne State University Law School.