DETROIT, Mich. — On the east side of the downtown area here, beggars and homeless people walk around or squat on the curbside all day. It is eerily silent. The streets are mostly deserted and small stores are closed.
Block after block, rows of houses and medium-rise residential buildings are abandoned, the front doors padlocked. Families that lived in the neighborhood for years — some since they were born — are gone. Many of them might not return permanently.
In April, Detroit, at 14.8 percent, had the highest unemployment rate of the country for any metropolitan area with a population of 1 million or more. Since then it has dipped to 13.6 percent, but the slight change means little to the thousands who lost their homes and were displaced from their communities in the recession.
This city on the Canadian border that used to be a home to more than two million people in 1950, now has about 800,000 residents.
“Somehow I feel that this place is cursed,” said Henry Banks, a Nigerian immigrant who drives a cab. “My relatives and friends lost their homes to foreclosure. They were evicted, so they had no choice but to leave the city.”
Banks, 48, said that the average wait to get passengers at the airport before the recession hit was about seven minutes. But after the meltdown of the automotive manufacturing industry here, people lost their jobs and many started driving cabs for a living.
“Nowadays I would wait for an hour-and-half and I would find myself still sitting alone in the cab. The competition has definitely increased. No jobs, people are losing their homes, business opportunities are very limited — it’s just crazy,” he said.
Banks, who came to the United States more than a decade ago and first settled in San Diego, Calif., said that he may also be forced to relocate to Chicago or New York, although he was not sure of his chances of getting a job there either.
“In the next three to five years, about 7.9 million homes will be foreclosed, and 7 million more families — that is about 10 million people — will be evicted in Michigan,” Jerry Goldberg, of Moratorium Now! Coalition, said in a panel discussion at the U.S. Social Forum here. “What we’re seeing now in Detroit is, unfortunately, not going to get any better soon.”
Goldberg and other advocates have been pushing for a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. They called on Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to declare a state of emergency to help stabilize the housing catastrophe in the region.
“The moratorium is an injunction to foreclosures and evictions,” he said. “It’s an immediate measure for immediate crisis. People should pay based on their income and what they can afford — and not on what these predatory lending banks impose.”
But since state Sen. Hansen Clarke introduced, in 2008, S.B. 1307, which will place a two-year freeze on foreclosures and allow homeowners to extend the redemption period from six months to two years, the bill has been stalled in the legislature Even the call for a state of emergency, Goldberg added, has fallen on deaf ears at Gov. Granholm’s office.
Abayomi Azikiwe, editor of Pan-African News Wire, said at the Social Forum that the state legislature seemed to ignore the passage of the moratorium bill in Michigan because of the “politically racist housing system.”
“The foreclosure rate among African Americans and Latinos in Michigan is more than double than the whites,” said Azikiwe. He said he is not aware of any studies yet that really show the racial disparities within the foreclosure crisis.
“It’s very hard to take. One day, you wake up and you realize that you have nothing,” said Sandra Hines, 56, who got evicted after the house that she, her mother and siblings lived in was foreclosed. “We lost a lifetime home, memories and furniture that we accumulated for more than 38 years.”
After her sister, who was the only one working in the family, lost her job at General Motors in 2008, they refinanced the house. But the mortgage, she said, was too high for her sister to pay every month.
“The sheriffs came one day and busted our belongings. Those were furniture that my mother bought over the years and she worked so hard to obtain them,” she said. “But the sheriffs didn’t care whether we had a place to stay. They padlocked the house and left us outside.”
Hines has been involved in fighting for the moratorium bill since their eviction. She said that it is the only means for people in Detroit to have an emergency relief, while the state continues to work on a long-term solution and hopefully revitalize Detroit.
If S.B. 1307 passes, she believes that the bill will become a model for other states and will benefit millions of struggling homeowners in the country.
“Foreclosures and evictions involve a lot of shame, humiliation and degradation," Hines said. "What happens to your neighbors could exactly happen to you.
"Today it’s me, but tomorrow it might be you.”