I was given a house for free – but it already belonged to someone else
This story is published in partnership with The Guardian and Bridge Detroit.
Miraculously, Tomeka Langford is willing to talk to me.
The 47-year-old Black woman is a long-standing Detroiter. A career pharm tech with four kids and six grandkids, her family has lived in the city ever since her grandparents came up from the south.
I am white, single and childless. In 2016, I was given a house by Write a House, a short-lived Detroit-based organization founded in 2011 to award homes to low-income scribes. The gift was meant to support writers with some of the city’s plentiful housing stock – and thus change the stories that get told about Detroit.
It was, on paper, a great idea. But the house I was given already belonged to someone: Tomeka Langford.
I didn’t know it at the time. Neither did Tomeka.
I settled into the adorable house, which sits in a cheerful neighborhood dubbed BanglaTown, after the area’s majority-Bangladeshi community. But the organization started to crumble once I moved in, and soon the roof of the house did, too – needing immediate replacement.
After the roof was replaced, I realized I was now living in a surprisingly expensive free house, trying to fulfill the mission of an organization that no longer existed. It was frustrating and unsustainable.
When I was offered a job in another state, I took it, and put the house on the market. This is when I realized I’d never been listed on the house’s title. Legally, the house did not belong to me.
Shortly after that is when Tomeka first came across my name. It was on the documents she received when I sued her for ownership of a house I’d been told was mine, a house that had, confusingly, already been taken from her years beforehand.
This isn’t a story about gentrification – at least, not how we usually think about it. It’s a story of a Black woman losing her home to municipal greed, and a white woman benefitting from her loss. It’s a story about the racial wealth gap, and how the median white American household accrues almost eight times the wealth of most Black American households.
But it’s also a story about what we do next: how we calculate damage, and what we might do to repair it.
Tomeka bought the house in 2010 for only $700, knowing there would be back taxes to pay off. She had always been a renter, and wanted to trade in monthly rent for home equity.People were selling houses in Detroit for dirt cheap then – $5,000, $2,000, $500, $1 – but they needed a ton of work and came with hefty property tax bills.
Tomeka’s husband introduced her to a guy who was offloading a house in BanglaTown. It was a fixer-upper, but Tomeka’s husband is a contractor. Steady employment meant she could cover the cost of the house, purchase supplies for repairs, bring in family to do the labor, and start paying down back taxes.
She says the seller, William C Murray II, was straightforward about both repairs and back taxes. They would amount to at least $10,000.
Documents show that Murray had purchased the house in 2009 for $1,000 from Deutsche Bank National Trust, the German multinational bank and financial services company that had acquired the house when the previous owner, a man with a Bangladeshi name, defaulted on his bank mortgage and abandoned it at the peak of the financial collapse.
This unusual chain of ownership explains how a house in the tightly-knit and longstanding immigrant community ever fell out of Bangladeshi ownership – and eventually into my lap.
In 2015, five years after Tomeka bought it, the house was sold for $5,000 to Write A House. A year later, it was given to me under the condition that I upkeep the property, pay taxes, be a good neighbor, and write. The city even gave me a Spirit of Detroit Award for moving into it.
After she bought it in 2010, however, the house technically remained in Tomeka’s name. But that didn’t stop Wayne county from selling it out from under her without telling her why.
When I moved into it, I was told the house had been abandoned, and that it sat unoccupied for eight years. In 2016, it made sense: a lot of people had abandoned houses during the financial crisis.
Write a House had built a fast reputation on the claim that it wasn’t capitalizing on the city’s foreclosure crisis. I was wary – property tax foreclosures were still happening at alarming rates – but the organization had done due diligence, and I was in love with my neighborhood.
After a two-year period, the house was supposed to go in my name. The deed did – the document that gives me the right to own the property. But this is different from a title, as mortgage companies will describe it, because a deed is a document while a title is a legal framework, a set of conditions that confer uncontestable ownership of a property. The title didn’t change hands.
I discovered this when I put the house on the market, two and a half years after I had moved into it. That was when my title agency informed me that the title to the house was still in Tomeka Langford’s name.
I found 52 Tomeka Langfords on Facebook, and soon gave up any attempt to make direct contact. After all, I was told the legal process from here was straightforward – it even has a name. My title agency suggested a law firm, QuietTitle.com, that specializes in quieting titles. For a set price ($1,200 back in 2018) and in lightning speed (90 to 180 days), clients are guaranteed a squeaky-clean title and uncontestable ownership of a property.
Detroit property ownership is a strange experience. The land was only ceded by Indigenous inhabitants in 1807, over a century after the city had already been founded. Selling a house as a white person in a brown community is even more distressing, as pricing, the language used in the listing and how word of sale spreads are coded to maximize sellers’ profits, not maintain community integrity.
Yet the quiet title process is inherently violent. Lawyers for reputed homeowners take swift legal action against all contenders to a property’s title. Few opportunities exist for distressed homeowners to have legitimate claims heard, and in places where disputes may be common – like Detroit – the process itself may fuel displacement.
I found the quiet title process perplexing and sad, but that was before I met Tomeka. That was before I heard, first-hand, how a process made relatively easy for me was in fact traumatic for her.
We tend to think of foreclosure as a logical consequence of too many skipped bank mortgage payments – indeed, the vast majority are bank-driven.
In the US, one in every 854 properties faces foreclosure, numbers that are rising again after a pandemic downturn. But most foreclosures in Wayne county, where Detroit is, are over unpaid property taxes. Few other municipalities treat their bases so aggressively.
There are a lot of property tax foreclosures. Between 2002 and 2016, 143,958 Detroit houses were foreclosed and listed in the county’s tax foreclosure auction, the vast majority after the economic crisis of 2008. The number totals an astonishing 37% of the city’s 384,840 properties.
That’s over a third of the city sold at auction, often for less than $5,000.
The press ate it up, churning out story after story about white artists moving to the city, installing new windows and paying off back taxes – but such articles overlooked who, exactly, bought those foreclosed homes.
A staggering 90% of all properties purchased at auction between 2005 and 2015 were by “investors buying in bulk”, a 2019 report from the University of Michigan shows. These were often abandoned or turned into rental properties. The report shows that 60% of the properties purchased by bulk buyers underwent evictions two or more times.
And evictions target Black women. According to Princeton’s Eviction Lab, nearly twice as many Black renters as white were evicted in 2020. The same study showed that 7.7% more white women than white men were evicted that year, whereas a full 36.3% more Black women than Black men were evicted.
When Tomeka bought her first house, she hoped she had escaped the precarity of the rental market. It was a starter home, barely big enough for her family of six, the youngest members of which was just starting school. “It was never a forever home, but maybe we could have given it to the kids,” she says.
This is no small thing. The primary means by which Americans pass along generational wealth is through home ownership. A 2020 report from the Brookings Institute finds that 30% of white households received an inheritance in the year before the pandemic, averaging just under $200,000. In comparison, just 10% of Black households did, for an average of $100,000.
The pandemic-fueled housing crisis has only deepened the racial wealth gap. Like foreclosure rates, eviction rates are returning to pre-pandemic numbers as the price of renting has skyrocketed.
Housing insecurity doesn’t merely strip the emotional safety of a place to live from neighbors; it forces entire families to give up their investment in future generations.
One lost house can disable a whole bloodline.
Throughout 2010 and 2011, Tomeka and her family stayed in their rental and made visits to the new house for repairs.
“We had to do all new wiring,” she tells me. “We had to put in an electrical box. Lighting. Hot water tank. Furnace. We had to put a few windows in, and then we had to put in some doors and some storm doors. We sanded the floors.”
The rehab was expensive. “I would probably say $6,000 or $7,000,” Tomeka estimates, adding that it would have been more expensive if they’d had to pay for labor. “We were gonna do that attic, finish it off.” She’s getting excited, and I get a glimpse of her from over a decade back, sharing with me a dream made reality through hard work and substantial investment.
Then she straightens, fades and withdraws into herself a bit. “But we never made it up there,” she says sadly.
At the end of 2011 or the early days of 2012, the whole family got the flu and it disrupted their schedule, she says. They couldn’t visit the house for weeks.
“When we did get back there, somebody had broken in and stolen all our furniture. Literally cleaned the place out. I was like, ‘What the hell! They done clinked us out!’
“They stole the storm door!” She’s nearly fuming with rage. “We had furniture there. We had, like, a whole house!”
The clothes, toys and furniture there were all used, but Tomeka estimates they’d spent about $2,000 furnishing the house. “We had put all this money in it,” she says, catching herself getting worked up again. “It made me angry,” she admits. “It was a lot of hard work, a lot of money. The fact that somebody would do that – I found that very, very upsetting.”
After that, they didn’t spend much time at the house for a few months.
Then in spring 2012, Tomeka was at a birthday party, poking around the county’s property tax auction website with a friend. “I was helping somebody else look for houses,” she says. She was seen as an expert among her peers in making the dream of home ownership come true.
Then she saw a listing – for her own house.
The white two-and-a-half bedroom BanglaTown bungalow was listed on the Wayne county tax foreclosure auction website.
She had only owned the house for two years and knew – everyone in Detroit did then – that it was supposed to take three years before the county can foreclose on a property. She says she was on a payment plan, and making regular payments on her back taxes. She admits she’d been having trouble receiving all her mail at the new house, but wouldn’t the treasurer’s office have alerted her to the pending foreclosure when she dropped off another property tax payment?
On paper, the Wayne county tax foreclosures auction works like this: property taxes are issued twice a year by the city. If a property owner doesn’t pay taxes after that first year, the debt is transferred to the county.
Two and a half years later, after multiple reminders, late fees and the addition of an 18% annual interest rate, if a homeowner fails to pay those taxes to the county, the house is foreclosed. Then the county puts the property up for auction.
According to documents from Wayne county, my own court case and separate FOIA requests, Tomeka made only one payment of $689 on an outstanding tax bill of over $5,000.
Her house went into foreclosure.
County records indicate that Tomeka was notified of foreclosure proceedings via an in-person visit and a note left on the door. There’s a document testifying to the former signed by a process server with Rancilio & Associates, and a photograph of the latter. But these documents also show that two postal mailings to Tomeka are still marked “Delivery Information Pending”.
Tomeka says she never received foreclosure warnings or notices. Since she knew she owed back taxes at purchase, she says she dutifully entered a payment plan with the treasurer’s office. She admits she may not have always made her payments on time, but she says her payments were regular.
Records show she still owed around $4,449.00 in taxes when the house was foreclosed, but she remembers paying down her debt to $1,500 or $2,000. “I would make multiple payments, like when I’d get my tax [refund], I’d go drop off a lump sum,” Tomeka says. “Then in between I only had to pay off a hundred dollars, or a hundred and something dollars per month.”
Queries to Wayne county about missing payments and lack of receipt of notification have gone unanswered, but the city explained via email that the foreclosure was over unpaid property taxes from 2009.
Sent by Stephanie Davis, communications manager in the office of the chief financial officer, the email reads: “When the 2009 taxes went unpaid for a third year, the ‘Judgment of Foreclosure’ was issued by the Wayne County Treasurer for this property. This happens often when someone purchases a home without checking first to see if the prior owner had unpaid taxes, which the new owner becomes responsible for.”
The city’s email continues: “It would not have mattered if she had paid the 2011 property taxes to Detroit, she owed Wayne County for 2009 and 2010.”
But seemingly missing payments and lack of notification are not unheard of among those who’ve lost homes to Wayne county. Nearly 20 families facing foreclosure had sued the county in federal court by 2016, alleging the foreclosures were illegal because owners “didn’t receive notices and believed they had more time to pay taxes and save their properties”, according to the Detroit News.
Two companies are mentioned in the lawsuit – Wolverine Services of Detroit and Rancilio & Associates, the very same process server contracted to deliver Tomeka’s notifications. Each company was paid more than $9m over four years to deliver foreclosure notices for the county.
The families behind the lawsuits share familiar stories: payments on back taxes owed, false or no information from county officials regarding foreclosure status, and foreclosure notices that never showed up, whether submitted by mail or taped to front doors with flimsy painter’s tape and blown away in the wind.
Unlike those families, Tomeka didn’t sue Wayne county. She didn’t have enough information.
How much Tomeka paid in property taxes may be less important than how much she was being charged.
Documents list her 2010 tax bill as over $1,800, and the back-tax bill from 2009 as over $2,500. This is more than double what she paid for the house in property taxes, every year.
When Tomeka and I speak, I show her a packet from a non-profit that pulls information from the Detroit assessor’s office. “The year you bought the house for $700,” I point out, “it carried an assessed value of $17,720.”
That’s high, but Tomeka is not impressed.
“The year before, when William C Murray II bought it for a thousand dollars, it was assessed at $20,136,” I read.
Tomeka remains unfazed.
“Inflated property tax assessments are a violation of the Michigan state constitution,” I say. No property can be assessed at more than 50% of its market value, I explain.
The year she bought it, Tomeka’s house was assessed at 2,500% of what she paid for it.
At the time, over-assessments were common. Detroit overtaxed between 55% and 85% of properties above that 50% threshold from 2009 to 2015, researchers found. Between 2011 and 2015, close to 100,000 families lost their homes.
A good quarter of the foreclosures that resulted from unconstitutional property tax assessments, a 2018 report from the University of Chicago says, were of homes priced at $9,000 or less.
That she was among thousands of Detroiters being charged illegally high property taxes for low-value houses finally raises Tomeka’s eyebrows.
At an assessment rate of 50% of the purchase price of her house – or half of $700 – property taxes for 2010 would have been less than $30. A constitutional assessment would have meant slightly higher taxes for the year prior, but Tomeka’s $689 on-record back-tax payment would easily have covered the total.
There’s no doubt that property taxes generated income for the city that was much-needed at the time – Detroit would declare bankruptcy the year after Tomeka’s house was foreclosed.
In fact, in a June 2017 article, Bridge Michigan found that Wayne county made $421m from interest rates and fees from residents repaying back taxes since the beginning of the financial meltdown. In 2013, the year Detroit declared bankruptcy, Wayne county’s surplus from fees and interest on back taxes alone was $64m.
But while the heavy reliance on property taxes for income might explain why the county was so quick to foreclose, the sky-high assessments are more complicated.
“We believe this home was not over-assessed,” Davis, a city of Detroit spokesperson, writes in response to my follow-up queries. Based on a mortgage appraisal conducted in 2007, the city holds that the 2010 $17,720 assessment – representing a cash value of $35,440 – was fair.
“Before Mayor Duggan took office in 2014, there was widespread over-assessment of properties, however in this particular case, because of the mortgage, the assessment was fair and in line with market condition,” Davis writes via email.
Marie Sheehan, the director of the Coalition for Property Tax Justice and a certified assessor in the city of Detroit, sees things differently. Her job is to help homeowners repeal their assessments; over and over, she’s seen the city downplay the problem of over-assessments.
“Of course that makes no sense,” she tells me on a video call. “In 2008 values plummet and what [the property] was worth in 2007 is undoubtedly not what it was worth in 2010.”
Founded in 2017, Sheehan’s group aims to stop illegally high property tax assessments, compensate Detroit residents who’ve lost their homes over unconstitutional property tax assessments, and suspend foreclosures on owner-occupied homes until their assessments are deemed legally viable.
“From our perspective,” Sheehan tells me, “for the tax foreclosure crisis and over-assessments to be happening in predominantly African American municipalities in Wayne county, but not in predominantly white municipalities in Wayne county … this is a violation of equal protection.” She says that houses of lower value are assessed at much higher rates on average than houses of higher value, which points to a systemic problem.
Sheehan sends me video of a city council meeting in which Alvin Horhn, city assessor, refutes the findings of the Coalition for Property Tax Justice. “There is no systemic problem of assessments in Detroit,” Horhn says on video.
Even years later, Tomeka is still in shock over the quick loss of her house.
When I ask what it was like to find it on the auction website, her eyes widen. “I was like, ‘Wow. This is really for sale! They done clinked it out!’”
We both stay silent for a moment, marking the unfathomability of the experience. Slowly, something clouds Tomeka’s sunny disposition. Not anger, but whatever anger becomes after a decade without outlet.
The anger she exhibited earlier in our conversation when detailing the gutting of her home by unknown thieves is gone. Yet the taking of the home itself, by a government agency that she says she steadily paid income, sales and property taxes to, sparks little reaction.
A couple of thieves will anger her. But officials elected to provide her protection that instead do her harm? What can she do with the heartbreak and the fury, but let it go?
“You can’t harbor stuff,” she says when I ask if she’s angry they took her house. “You can’t believe it, but when you’re the little person, what can you really do? You don’t have anything to fight with.”
She says she spent most of 2012 trying to find out why a municipal entity was auctioning off her house. She called the Wayne county treasurer’s office, the deed people, and the city, “but nobody could never give me any information”. She told anyone who would listen that she couldn’t be that behind on her taxes, that she’d only owned the house for two years, less than the three-year deadline imposed by the county. No one had any explanation.
Eventually she got tired of asking and gave up. When the house went to auction, it failed to sell. Twice. It was eventually offered to the city’s Land Bank, who sold it to Write A House the following year.
I moved in a year later.
When I brought my lawsuit forward in 2019 to claim the house’s title, Tomeka fought it with everything she had.
“We went to housing court twice, because the first time, I told the judge I wanted to look over the documents. He was like, ‘Do you want to sign?’ and I was like, ‘No, I wanna take time.’ I made another court date. That’s when I tried to do some more research,” she says.
“I even asked the lawyer, ‘If you want me to sign off, I should be getting some type of monetary settlement or something,’” Tomeka continues. “And the lawyers – they never said nothin’. They said, ‘Get your own lawyer.’”
Annoyance has finally crept into her voice.
“So then I was like, ‘Look. If somebody wants the house that bad …’ I just can’t keep going back and forth, around and around.”
That was when, she says, she signed the papers they gave her. Papers that conferred the title of a house that had been awarded to me.
My lawyers had never informed me of any of this, and I’m ashamed to have put her through it. I’d been given the impression, throughout my lawsuit, that Tomeka was not locatable. Instead, she had contested my claims of property ownership right up until she finally agreed to sign.
I pull out the collection of legal documents I’ve amassed over the years that had suggested she could not be tracked down. Maybe I missed something?
I didn’t. The documents state that Tomeka Langford’s “whereabouts are unknown”.
“I was told no one could find you,” I tell her, feebly.
“Oh, they found me just fine,” she says, referring to my lawyers, in 2019. Then she scoffs, annoyed that I would put any credence in a system that attempted to erase her.
It would be easy, I imagine, for Tomeka to feel unseen in this process, simply for trying to be a homeowner. But political action is already being taken to address some of what Tomeka’s gone through.
Early this year, the Detroit city council president, Mary Sheffield, and the Coalition for Property Tax Justice outlined a new plan for compensating overassessed homeowners.
The proposal states in clear language that the city and county stole family homes, reduced or destroyed intergenerational wealth, broke community bonds, and dehumanized and/or infantilized residents, resulting in a theft of dignity. “Dignity takings require more than reparations,” the plan reads. “They require dignity restoration, which puts dispossessed individuals and communities in the driver’s seat, allowing them to determine how they are made whole.”
The preliminary plan suggests that those who lost homes to foreclosure between 2009 and 2020 be offered: employment and small business support; a $1 side lot; and either a Land Bank-rehabbed property, a Land Bank property and home repair grant, or a rental voucher.
It’s a small, local effort at restitutive housing, but such programs have been gaining ground across the country, even if they help only a fraction of those who qualify. In Santa Monica, California, residents, children, or grandchildren displaced by a freeway construction project in the 50s and 60s are given priority in the city’s affordable housing rental program, and in Evanston, Illinois, qualifying Black residents are offered funds for home purchase or repair in deliberate attempts to redress generations of housing discrimination.
It’s a far cry from federal reparations, but city-based programs are a step in that direction.
It’s a new day, and the house we both owned has been returned to Bangladeshi ownership.
Sitting with Tomeka on the front porch steps of our former neighbors’ home and chatting about an upcoming birthday party on the block feels profound. Maybe even healing.
But I have been dreading this meeting. Writers can be complicit in structures that benefit them while silencing the voices of their subjects. I got a house out of the deal, and then a Spirit of Detroit Award for moving into a home taken from a Black woman and second-generation Detroiter.
How to account for that, face to face?
“What appears to have happened,” I summarize, “was that the county had decided it wanted your house by the time you bought it, and then took it.”
“Pretty much,” Tomeka agrees.
“And even though that was years before I became involved, I did end up benefiting from that. And I am so sorry.” I’m trying not to cry. I don’t want Tomeka to feel like she has to make me feel better about how I came to be living in her house.
She does anyway. “Well it’s not your fault, Anne. You had no idea.”
I gesture toward the house and ask what might undo some of the damage it brought her way. “Have you thought at all about what it would take to make you feel whole?”
Tomeka thinks for a moment. “You have put a lot of answers to some of my questions, as far as finding out what happened. That makes me feel better about the whole situation,” she says.
“I used to think, ‘What did I do? Did I do something wrong or did I miss something? But I was making my payments. I was just going about my daily life. Then one day, boom. You see [your own house] for sale.”
“Answers are good,” I say. “But maybe they’re not enough? You’re owed emotional restitution,” I suggest. “You’re owed a house.”
“I do think it would be nice for them to give me another house, because of the one they took,” Tomeka says slowly. “That would make me whole. Replace what you took. They got plenty houses. They can spare one or two.”
The Coalition for Property Tax Justice held an online forum earlier this year with over 600 attendees to ask what form of compensation former homeowners most wanted. Cash compensation and property tax credits against future taxes emerged as the most popular, although the city has already denounced these as an unconstitutional lending of the city’s credit. Alongside council president Sheffield, the group has since asked the Michigan attorney general, Dana Nessel, to weigh in. Her opinion will inform the group’s final proposal for a city-wide compensation resolution.
But even if Tomeka ever receives compensation, her sense of loss might persist.
“It’s almost like a death,” Tomeka says of a house taken from her and given to me. “You don’t never forget it, but you learn to move on.”
Anne Elizabeth Moore is an editor and artist well known for her books Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing and the Erosion of Integrity, and Hey Kidz, Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People.
Cydni Elledge is a photographer from Detroit, Michigan.
Co-published with The Guardian and Bridge Detroit.