SHAKIYA ROBERTSON WAS STANDING on her front porch when a small maroon sedan heading west on East Outer Drive slowed to a crawl and parked in front of her home. A middle-aged man with blond hair and glasses got out and made his way toward her.
"Do you know this house is in the auction?" he asked.
It was 2:40 p.m. on Oct. 21, less than an hour before bidding on her home in the 2015 Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction was supposed to end. The price, which had started at $500, had already been driven up to nearly $4,000.
"Yes," she replied.
"Do you want to stay here?" he pressed.
For the past six years Robertson, who lives with her husband Warren and their three kids — Ky'Shaun, 14, Kye'Ren, 11, and Kyi'Lei 4 — had called the cozy bungalow home. The answer to his question was, of course, "yes."
Back in 2009, Robertson, a charismatic 31-year-old with a full-bosom and high cheekbones, was driving through the neighborhood when she noticed a sign in front of a boarded up house. QuitRent.net it read. She doubled back. At the time, she and her two sons were living at her mom's place a few blocks away on Kilbourne Street. The arrangement was a full house — her sister, her sister's four kids, and her little brother were staying there as well — and the prospect of owning her own place seemed too good to pass up.
The feeling didn't wane even after she saw what was inside. There was a tub in the bathroom but no toilet or sink. The kitchen was bare save for two cabinets. Of the 14 windows in the house, only two were intact. Despite all this Robertson saw a future for her family and signed a 15-year land contract on the property. $500 down. $295 a month.
"It may not be perfect, but it's something we can make perfect for ourselves," she remembers telling Warren at the time.
And that's what they did. Warren, a stocky 32-year-old with dreadlocks and a good sense of humor, scraped all the paint off the walls — they didn't know if the existing coatings were lead-based and erred on the side of caution — and repainted each room. Robertson hung photographs of important family moments around the house. When Kyi'Lei was born they decorated her room with a princess theme, enlisting Robertson's brother to draw a mural above her bed.
"No, it wasn't the best custom-made remodeling that you can do, but we made it livable," Robertson says now. In her view, the 15-year deal was an opportunity to turn a "shack into a castle."
There was just one problem. While she and Warren were paying rent each month, making good on their contractual obligations, the same could not be said for Paramount Land Holdings, the company behind the QuitRent sign. The company never paid property taxes on the house like it had promised.
Which is why, in the spring, Robertson found out her home was slated for foreclosure. It's why she was informed this past summer that it would be listed in the public auction. And it's why on this sticky October afternoon, she had a stranger on her porch inquiring about her castle.
"Are you bidding on it?" the man asked.
"Yes." Robertson could feel her heart tightening.
From inside the house she could hear kids goofing off in front of the TV. While her boys sort of knew what was going on — Kye'Ren had offered to mow their neighbors' lawns to help raise money — the magnitude of the day, and what was at stake in less than an hour was lost on them.
For the past six months Robertson, like thousands of other Detroiters, scrambled to make sense of a notification saying their home would be up for the taking. There had been sleepless nights, humbling crowdfunding campaigns, calls to nearby homeless shelters, demeaning visits to 400 Monroe, dispiriting budget decisions — birthdays and holidays would be scrapped to save money — fake smiles to hide the uncertainty and fear from the children ... and ultimately a lot of hope. Because that's what it came down to at some point. So much of the auction process was out of Robertson's control — both how she got there and what might happen next. Today's outcome rested in the hands of nameless bidders on the Internet — perhaps even one who drove a maroon sedan.
In an hour, Robertson would find out if her home was still her home, if the porch on which she was standing was still her porch, and if her yard in which the man was standing was still her yard.
"Well, good luck," the man said, before turning on his heels and trudging back to his car.
THIS IS DETROIT IN 2015: Families living in fear that someone with a fatter wallet, and a desire to speculate, will tap a computer mouse a few times and send them packing.
In May, Motor City Mapping, the data company behind 'blexting', identified 2015 as a "record year" for tax foreclosures in Detroit. More than 60,000 homes — or one-sixth of the city — were three years behind on property taxes and at risk of being repossessed by the government.
While more than half of those homes were withdrawn and never made it to auction — either because their owner agreed to a payment plan, paid the back taxes to redeem the property, or got a one-year distressed-owner occupant exemption — more than 24,000 homes did go up for auction this fall. That is 2,000 more than last year, the previous record-holder.
The Wayne County tax auction — deemed by some as a "modern-day form of forced relocation" and by others as a pragmatic step to recoup funds — first entered public discourse in 1999 when then-Gov. John Engler signed a series of reforms dealing with the state's foreclosure system. Under the legislation, which went into action in 2002, properties would be repossessed by a county after three years of delinquent taxes — versus the six-to seven-year cycle the state had previously been on — and public auctions would replace annual tax lien sales.
"There exists in this state a continuing need to strengthen and revitalize the economy of this state and its municipalities by encouraging the efficient and expeditious return to productive use of property returned for delinquent taxes," read segments of the legislation.
While the reforms aiming to expedite the foreclosure process may have intended to spark new ownership — and therefore usage — of abandoned spaces, the reality is many homeowners, specifically those with cash-flow problems, have gotten caught in the crosshairs of the legislation.
According to Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at University of Michigan, research has found that two types of people stop paying their property taxes: those who have abandoned a property and those who have run into financial difficulties. Unfortunately, policymakers, specifically in Detroit, have not done a good job of identifying and therefore helping the latter category bypass a public auction.
"More rapid tax foreclosures take homes from low-income homeowners unless a strong foreclosure prevention program aids homeowners in formalizing their ownership and in using various assistance programs that aid veterans, homeowners in poverty, and others," writes Dewar in a 2009 paper that compares the foreclosure practices in Flint and Detroit.
While foreclosure prevention programs do exist in Detroit, they are not adequately integrated into the Wayne County foreclosure protocol. The treasurer's current notification process comes in the form of yellow envelopes that are stapled to homes at risk of foreclosure each winter. Their announcement — that the home could be repossessed by the county if action is not taken — is worded in legal jargon and does not even mention the auction.
It is unsurprising, based on the problematic notification method, that more than 8,000 of the 24,000 properties up for auction this fall were occupied, according to Loveland, which surveyed individuals facing foreclosure last winter and found that 89 percent had suffered a hardship — job loss, divorce, a medical emergency, or a death in the family — within the last year.
Take the U.S. census estimate of 2.6 people per household and more than 20,000 Detroiters — many of whom are already struggling financially, physically, and/or mentally — faced displacement and uncertainty as their houses hit the auction block.
"These are astronomical numbers that would get people out in the streets protesting in any other American city," says Peter Hammer, the director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, who fears a subclass of Detroit's population — namely poor, minorities — are being pushed out in the name of a "revitalization" plan that prioritizes property over people.
Whether displacement is intentional, it is difficult to view the auction in isolation or even as some new phenomenon that started in the early 2000s. Rather, the tax auction is the result of a slow and painful unraveling of the city's history and policies. It is the result of numerous micro shortcomings, such as high tax rates, antiquated property values, and a notification system that leaves much to be desired, as well as macro failings, like immense poverty, a history of racial discrimination, years of population loss, scandal-ridden city politics, and the subprime mortgage crisis.
The 2015 auction — the interaction between Robertson and the man in the maroon car — had been a moment years in the making.
ASK ROBERTSON TO TELL YOU about herself and she'll start by telling you about the homes she's lived in.
First there was 1141 Lansdowne. Tree-lined with tidy, clipped lawns stretching out from stout brick bungalows, Lansdowne is where Robertson lived, happily, until she was 17. That's when her parents split up. Overnight, her mom, Rhonda Cherry, became a single mother with four kids and an unrealistic mortgage. A family friend offered up her home, rent free, in exchange for some maintenance duties, and that's how Robertson ended up on Promenade.
13370 Promenade, or the "House of Horrors," as Robertson has christened it, was a nightmare far removed from her first home even though it was just a short drive away. Running water was scarce so they would often shower at a neighbor's. The furnace was constantly giving out because of flooding in the basement. They improvised to keep warm, but too many space heaters occupying too few outlets caused nightly blown circuits. In the mornings they'd find stray cats right beside them under their covers — a consequence of the house lacking windows. It was cold. Everyone was constantly sick. It felt like it might never get better, but it did.
12625 Kilbourne came next. When Robertson's mom, who spent weekends cruising the east side looking for vacant homes to buy, first showed the kids the house, they thought she had officially lost it. It was a dilapidated shell not too different from what Promenade looked like. But Cherry saw promise. She could make it her own, she told them. She chopped the forest of trees in the backyard and planted a garden. She scrubbed the bathtub till the black stains went away and she painted the walls in an array of pastels.
Watching her mother turn a shell of a structure into a home likely impacted Roberton's decision to call the number on the QuitRent.net sign on East Outer Drive. Her mother had made the dream of owning a house a real possibility, and Robertson still bore the memories of her transient young adult life, something she didn't want for her kids.
"I figured let's not a pay a person to live off you," Robertson says. "Some people are paying $1,200 or $700 in rent — just think where that can get you if you invest in yourself and not some else's pocket."
On March 2, 2009, she brought her mom downtown for support as she signed the land contract with George Kastanes, the chief operator of Paramount. Any anxiety was mollified when they arrived at the office, a small room inside the Detroit police precinct on Woodward. "I'm thinking, 'OK, you wouldn't be running any scams with the police right up under you would you?'"
Unfortunately, Paramount was not only running scams under DPD's nose — they were audacious enough to prey on police as well. And because it's Detroit ... for many years they got away with it.
2007 WAS A GOOD YEAR for James Odell Barnes. While the subprime mortgage crisis was devastating — families lost their homes, millions lost their jobs, housing prices fell dramatically, as did the stock market — Barnes, known as the Foreclosure King, felt none of this. In fact, he thrived. Purchasing foreclosed homes in bulk that the banks were all too happy to basically give away, Barnes would flip them — often sight unseen — to low-income individuals with inadequate credit ratings who couldn't get proper loans. He left the work for the families moving in — "Poor people have a lot of ingenuity," he told the Wall Street Journal — and charged high interest rates of about 12 percent.
He made millions — and his colleagues didn't do so bad either.
George Kastanes, his wife Teresa, and their son Alex worked closely with Barnes in South Carolina, where they all lived. In 2007 they decided to strike out on their own and capitalize on the foreclosure catastrophe in a city that was hit particularly hard: Detroit.
Sprawl and high levels of job loss had magnified the mortgage meltdown in Michigan and particularly in the Motor City. More than 100,000 properties across the state were foreclosed that year — an 85 percent increase from 2005 — and 5 percent of Detroit's homes were repossessed. The city was crowned the foreclosure fiefdom with the highest rate in the nation.
With this as the backdrop, Kastanes approached Abner McWhorter, a local businessman, about partnering for Paramount Limited, a company that would buy foreclosed properties from the banks and sell them similar to Barnes. In June 2007 McWhorter, upon the urging of Kastanes, approached the Detroit Police and Fire Retirement System to see if they wanted to invest in their lucrative plan.
While the pension fund declined the offer, in January 2008 — with a thumbs up from Jeffrey Beasley, the former pension trustee and Kwame Kilpatrick frat brother who was sentenced this year to 11 years in prison for questionable pension investments — they agreed to lend Paramount $10 million to buy and rehab 1,400 foreclosed homes in metro Detroit. The pension expected 16 percent interest each year in return. "The way it was presented was to revitalize residential areas in Detroit," police and fire pension fund chairman Sean Neary told The Detroit News in 2012 when everything fell apart.
As the article goes on to explain: "Instead of maintaining, rehabilitating, and marketing the homes, Paramount and others are accused of grossly mismanaging the real-estate portfolio, failing to maintain the properties or pay property taxes, according to the pension fund," later adding, "Paramount was not profitable and was repaying the loan with the pension fund's own money — a classic Ponzi scheme."
In May 2011, when it appeared $5 million had just vanished, the pension fund sued Paramount for more than $15 million. A year later a judge put a warrant out for the principal actors' arrests. Kastanes was detained in a Florida airport — he and his wife had fled to St. Kitt after declaring bankruptcy. Teresa, who remained abroad, eventually surrendered in November. McWhorter committed suicide.
The story was crazy and engrossing but what was missing from most news coverage — MT got it — was what would become of people like Robertson, who were paying Paramount $295 a month with the understanding that they would one day own their home. The attention was so focused on the pension fund that some aspiring homeowners, such as Robertson, were never even informed of Paramount's illegal activities. She had no idea about the Ponzi scheme, no idea the man she signed the contract with was in jail, or that the company was accused of grossly mismanaging properties, let alone not paying property taxes.
While justice was being served for one scammed party — it was coming, still, at the expense of another.
Looking at the chain of titles for the East Outer Drive house, one begins to fully comprehend how predatory behavior begets predatory behavior. The mortgage foreclosures and the tax foreclosures are just a few links apart in a chain weighted down by parasites. In many ways the house was doomed far before Kastanes and Robertson ever struck a deal.
In December 2007, the East Outer Drive home was foreclosed. Five months later CitiMortgage Inc. sold the house for $1 to Bryce Peters Financial Corp. in Nevada, which was owned by fellow Barnes minion Blaine Murphy. (In 2013 Murphy pleaded guilty to several charges of fraud after being indicted for illegally flipping homes in Cleveland.)
According to documents, Kastanes provided to Robertson when she signed the 15-year land-lease totaling more than $50,000, Bryce Peters granted the property to Kastanes in a quit claim deed in December 2008 for $1.
The quit claim deed, however, was not notarized and, according to the Wayne County Treasurer, Bryce Peters was still the legal owner of the house. (This raises questions about the legality of Kastanes' contract with Robertson.)
A 2013 study from Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies looking at the path of mortgages foreclosed homes in Cleveland, a city with a similar foreclosure rate to Detroit, found that making titles untransferable was a common practice among some of the more egregious, often out of state, lenders who purchased homes from banks.
Even after the scams of Paramount came to light, nobody took the time to analyze the validity of each contract — Kastanes shredded many of his documents.
Robertson didn't know about any of this. In 2013, she received a phone call from a customer service rep at Towne Mortgage in Sterling Heights informing her that they would be handling the property hence forward and that her payment would not increase. To Robertson, this was another trustworthy company whose sole purpose was making her a homeowner — in reality they were the receiver in charge of recovering funds for the pensioners.
For more than two years Robertson and Warren continued to make payments to Towne Mortgage. $295 a month, every month. And continued making improvements to the home they'd one day own.
"In my head I am like, 'This isn't even for me,'" Robertson says. "When we get older, me and Warren, we can go. We can move into an apartment; we don't need much space. But it's for the children. Say for instance Kyi'Lie moves out, she gets her own house, Ky'Shaun moves out and he gets his own house, but Ky'Ren never moves out and never gets his own place. This will be his place. He doesn't have to find anywhere to go because he already has a place. Regardless of the child, they will always have a place because this the place we are building for them."
IN MAY, A FEW WEEKS AFTER Kyi'Lie's fourth birthday, Robertson received a postcard in the mail. "Call 4-1-1 to save your property from foreclosure," it read.
She stuffed it in her purse, like she did with most junk mail, but couldn't stop thinking about the words emblazoned across the top "foreclosure". The next morning she called the number. The woman who answered told her she had to go downtown to 400 Monroe Ave., short for the Wayne County Treasurer, for more information.
It was there that Robertson finally learned the truth about Kastanes and Paramount and the Ponzi scheme and the fraud. It was there she finally learned that everything she hadn't known had directly affected her.
According to the treasurer's office, Bryce Peters Financial Corp., the listed owner of the property and therefore taxpayer, owed more than $30,000. Taxes were due from 2014 all the way back through 2008, before Robertson even signed the lease. The tax bills had been mailed to an address in Nevada — the same address Bryce Peters listed on the May 2008 contract with CitiMortgage.
Neither Paramount nor Towne Mortgage had been paying property taxes as the original contract had stated.
She asked what she could do. The lady behind the desk said she could pay $6,000 to stay off the auction list.
She asked if she could make payment arrangements. It was too late for that.
She explained her land-lease agreement. She was sent to the fraud department.
She explained her story again there. She was turned away.
"We only deal with landlord-tenant cases, not mortgage fraud," the woman in the fraud department told her.
She went home.
A SORT OF DEPRESSION SET IN shortly after the Monroe visit. In the same way Robertson had made a mental catalog of her past homes, she began thinking hard about East Outer Drive's legacy. There was the excitement of bringing Kyi'Lie home from the hospital and hugging her tightly in the pink room they had decorated for her. There was the one-year anniversary party in August 2013 that Robertson and Warren threw in their backyard with about 50 of their closest friends and family in attendance. There was the sadness and final goodbye at her grandmother's memorial service — also in the backyard. There were countless memories of the kids and the little moments that marked their growth — the first this, the first that.
She had similar memories of her mother's house on Kilbourne, the one Rhonda Cherry had so lovingly renovated. And she had to look no further than that home to realize how fast it can all go away.
Back in 2013, Cherry's house was sold at the Wayne County auction without her even knowing it was in danger. While she says she was paying property taxes, there had been a dispute over ownership — a woman signed the house over the Cherry when it was still blighted but then tried to reclaim it after it had been fixed up — which complicated where the bills were going.
After 10 years of living in the home, Cherry found out the house had been foreclosed and ultimately purchased when the new buyer, a Detroit police officer, showed up on her porch that fall and asked her what she thought was fair rent. Cherry had no intention of renting the house she felt she owned, so she left and moved into Robertson's basement.
Today, weeds have sprouted up where flowerbeds used to blossom at 12625 Kilbourne.
The grass is taller than knee-high and the yard is nothing more than a collection of random garbage and litter, a flip flop here, a striped shirt there.
Looking through the window you can see the house is completely gutted. Walls have been knocked down and plaster crumbs dot the ruby red carpet.
"This is grandma's old house," Kyi'Lie whispered to her cousin Janiyah one sunny afternoon in October when Robertson stopped by to check it out. As Kye'Ren led Robertson and the girls to the backyard to see what had become of the garage that his grandma once cleverly decorated with a cherry painting, Robertson pointed out things that had changed. But before she could cover the full list, Kyi'Lie interrupted her with a blunt and astute observation.
"Someone broke her house," Kyi'Lie said. "Someone broke her house."
Once a point of pride in the neighborhood, Cherry's home today is what Loveland, the Detroit Blight Task Force, and Dan Gilbert would all agree is blight. More than a year since she moved out, the house is empty and stripped.
That's not surprising to those who study this sort of thing. Like the cycle of predatory actors milking the properties, the properties themselves have a cycle.
According to a 2015 report by Loveland, almost 1 in 6 of the occupied homes in the 2014 tax auction is now vacant. Of those empty homes, 180 are considered new demolition candidates. In layman's terms: Homes that were once occupied by people like Cherry are now not only empty but considered dangerous eyesores.
More remarkably, getting rid of those newly blighted structures would cost the city an estimated $2 million. Ironically enough, according to Jerry Paffendorf the CEO of Loveland, this is same amount Wayne County spends producing and distributing the yellow foreclosure bags each year — a notification technique that has been criticized for not ensuring individuals, as was the case with Cherry, fully understand their next steps once a house is up for foreclosure.
MICHELE OBERHOLTZER BECAME AWARE of the foreclosure system's shortcomings when she took a job with Loveland surveying properties for the 2014 auction.
She and others were tasked with taking photos of the homes that were up for foreclosure in order to get data points on the condition of a house and whether it was occupied; Oberholtzer was confronted with the issue that many people, like Cherry, did not even know their home was in danger of repossession.
As she'd pedal around town snapping flicks, she brought along a short list of numbers, provided by Loveland, that she could give to families if they happened to come out and ask what she was doing. She quickly realized, however, how inadequate this system was.
"Even though my job was not to interact with people it was inevitable," Oberholtzer, a petite 30-year-old with the calm voice of elementary school teacher, explains.
In many ways she felt like a guy sitting next to you in a doctor's waiting room who has to repeat that you have cancer. There were so many questions but she had so few answers. More frustrating than not knowing them, she says, was the fact that she didn't feel like she could easily find them if she wanted.
"I have a college education and Internet access," Oberholtzer says, "and I was still finding it difficult to get answers."
When she discovered that one of the properties on her list to survey was U-SNAP-BAC, a nonprofit that provides homeowner and buyer counseling classes with the intent of stopping foreclosures, she knew the issues of the city were bigger than just individual homes. "The safety net is under attack," she remembers thinking as she biked home that day.
Shortly after that realization she created the Tricycle Collective, an organization that canvasses neighborhoods spreading awareness about foreclosures and raising funds to help families win their homes back. Last year, when she conceived of the idea, she started a crowdfunding campaign and raised enough to give 11 families $500 each. Nine of the eleven won their homes.
This year she had bigger ambitions: Raise $20,000 to help 31 families and be more proactive in the neighborhoods to make sure families, even those she couldn't donate to, knew their options.
This second step was particularly important this year, since in January Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a bill that prohibits individuals with a foreclosed property or delinquent taxes from bidding in the auction. While the law was designed with the idea of stopping slumlords or property flippers like Kastanes from participating, it mostly affects the everyday people like Robertson. The United Community Housing Coalition, which offers services as a proxy bidder, has become invaluable in light of this law. It's where Oberholtzer's introductory to foreclosure options starts.
On a muggy day in September she and two other volunteers were canvassing on Promenade, near Robinson's former "House of Horrors." It's a block parallel to East Outer Drive, but Oberholtzer had no intention of going there. She had lost homes in Virginia Park last year and knew that certain streets and neighborhoods had cache that promised to drive up the bidding price. East Outer Drive was one of them.
"It's not a good use of time, and it's fucking depressing," Oberholtzer says from her office in Detroit's Green Garage. The other volunteers, Garrett and Arquesha, kept pushing to check it out. "People live here too!" they kept saying.
Oberholtzer knew but she was trying to be practical. She was constantly racked with anxiety about the sheer volume of families facing foreclosure. There were too many houses and too many people for the Tricycle Collective to attempt to reach them all. Erring against her pragmatism, she relented and made her way to East Outer Drive. After a few blocks they landed at a house that her Loveland map said was foreclosed. She could hear the yelps and giggles of kids playing in a backyard and spotted bunch of bikes and tricycles in the driveway.
It was Robertson's house.
Kye'Ren spotted the trio first.
"Mom, someone showed up to talk to you about the house," he told Robertson, who had just gotten home from her job as a barista at Biggby Coffee in Grosse Pointe.
Her heart stopped. She had already started saving money to take to the Housing Coalition for a bid, but did this mean people were actually starting to scope the house out? Was this a potential buyer?
"My instinct was like, 'Somebody want to look into my house.' I need to tell the kids to come in the house, we're going to close the doors and not come outside and talk to anyone," she says.
Oberholtzer approached the door and started giving her spiel, explaining that the house was slated for the auction and what Robertson could do about it. Robertson realized this was an ally.
"Shakiya [Robertson] is one of the only people in all canvassing that already knew about the foreclosure and the auction," Oberholtzer says. "In that way we weren't bringing that much info, it was more of a support network for her."
Oberholtzer was moved by Robertson's story and determination to get her home back. She committed $1,000.
IN THE DAYS LEADING UP to the auction, Robertson vacillated between trying to keep her cool and exploding in intense freak-outs. In addition to the stress of the auction there were the near-constant calls from Towne Mortgage. She was falling behind on her payments, they said.
When she found out the house was in the auction, she was advised by the Housing Coalition to stop paying them. Despite the house being in the possession of Wayne County, Towne Mortgage kept haranguing her for money.
In a July 2 letter, one month after the house had been foreclosed, they wrote her to say payments for June and July were due and she owed $619.50 because of late penalties. In mid-August she received another letter saying her balance had jumped to $1,268. By September the notes had become sterner: "An action to foreclose your mortgage is now being seriously considered. The drastic action may be necessary due to your serious delinquency."
The irony of course was the house was already up for the taking in round 1 of the 2015 Wayne County tax auction. What gives Robertson chills is the fact that others likely didn't know their house was up for auction and probably continued paying Towne Mortgage, when they would have been better off saving the money to either bid or to navigate the uncertainty ahead.
Robertson felt that future uncertainty with immense clarity as the man in the maroon sedan pulled away. Oberholtzer had arrived right before the intense encounter and suggested everyone hang out outside so the house would appear conspicuously occupied. The boys hopped around on a couch that Robertson had already put outside for bulk pick up — she snuck back into the house. She prayed that the $3,435 she and Warren had saved, plus the $1,000 donation from Tricycle, would be enough to notch the top bid. That cash sat with the Housing Coalition, who would be doing the bidding.
At 3:29 p.m., a minute before the auction was supposed to end, the bidding had jumped to $4,200. Then another bidder raised the price and the auction was extended by five minutes.
About an hour and a half earlier, a prominent Detroit personality had gotten in touch with Oberholtzer and told her they were willing to front the cash for families. "Do what you need to do," the person had said.
Oberholtzer had made plans with the Housing Coalition that if the bid went up to $5,000 she, using the bank account of this anonymous donor, would intervene.
The auction had been extended another five minutes. Robertson's house was now priced above $5,000.
While Oberholtzer had already gone over the plan with Robertson — this anonymous person would go as high as Robertson wanted and then, through a land contract, Robertson would have a year to pay the person back and get the deed. No interest, no scams, just the luxury of having cash to front the purchase — the mother of three was in a daze.
Clutching Oberholtzer's hand, Robertson was silent as she watched her type in the figure $8,000. This would be the max bid.
Cartoons played from the TV screen as Kyi'Lie sat across the room eating a Hot Pocket and drinking from a pink and green sippy cup.
It was oddly calm. They waited.
Finally, at 3:45 p.m., Oberholtzer softly announced, "It's closed. You got it."
"Thank you, Jesus!" Robertson erupted, throwing her hands up into the air as tears streamed down her cheeks. "I was so afraid." Rocking back and forth, Robertson leaned down and hugged the chair behind Oberholtzer.
Kyi'Lie came over to check on her mom.
"She's happy, it's OK," explained Oberholtzer.
"I promised you I had nowhere to go," Robertson choked out.
She didn't have to worry about that anymore. She had purchased her house back for $6,100.
TODAY, WHEN YOU DRIVE by Robertson's house, it is decked out with Thanksgiving decorations. "There is always something to be thankful for," reads a prominent placard on the front door. The anxiety-filled nightmare is over, and she and Warren can go back to investing in their future. This week they're able to pick up the more than $4,000 they dropped off at the United Community Housing Coalition and transfer the funds to the anonymous donor. After years of the East Outer Drive house falling victim to predatory scams, the deed is finally in the hands of someone Robertson knows she can trust. No games. And only a small payoff left before the deed is in her hands.
The same could not be said for everyone else. Of the 31 families that Oberholtzer donated to, 13 lost their homes. Of the 8,000 occupied homes in this year's auction over 5,000 were purchased by private buyers; whether or not they were bought by their current occupants, as was Robertson's case, is unclear, but unfortunately unlikely.
The somewhat randomness of it all — if Cherry hadn't lost her home, would Robertson have paid so close attention to the 411 foreclosure sign? If Oberholtzer hadn't been pushed to walk down East Outer Drive would Robertson have had enough? If the anonymous donor hadn't contacted Oberholtzer less than two hours before bidding was to end, would the man in the maroon sedan, or someone like him, won? — makes it difficult to pinpoint how auction results go so differently for various families.
What is indisputable, win or lose, is the mental strain that thousands of Detroiters lived with for those months of uncertainty.
"I would never wish this on anyone," Robertson said between tears in one of our first meetings in early October, when she still had little clarity or clue of what would happen to her home. "I don't have enemies but even if I did I wouldn't wish this on them. Nobody should have to go through this."
There is some hope that change may be on its way. In September, longtime Wayne County Treasurer Raymond Wojtowicz announced plans to retire. The news came a month after Wayne County's chief deputy treasurer, David Szymanski, announced plans to part ways. These departures give hope that a re-evaluation of the city's stress-inducing and destructive foreclosure system may come soon.
In the interim, however, the cycle keeps going. Robertson may be in her home but a slew of new foreclosures are already heading down the pipeline according to Loveland, which estimates another 60,000 homes are expected to be foreclosed in 2016. The yellow bags are being stapled to doors as you read this. Next year's auction is being readied. Shacks and castles hang in the balance. And families will get little help or advice beyond what the man in the maroon sedan offered: "Good luck."