“I just want to say thank you for joining us in the fight for our lives.”
Antoinette Talley stands on a makeshift podium in the common area of a gray stone church on Detroit’s east side. The room’s walls are a dark, varnished wood. Fluorescent lighting illuminates an imposingly large wood-framed image of The Last Supper over the door.
If it weren’t for the plastic over the windows, Talley’s generous smile, and body heat - there are at least sixty people in attendance - the room would be as cold as Detroit’s battered streets.
As she addresses the audience, Talley is flanked by several of her neighbors, each of them recent homeowners in the new Gratiot-McDougall housing development just a few blocks north of the church. She and her neighbors have been fighting a dubious eviction notice from the project’s developer for months now. Today they are guests of honor at a fundraiser held on their behalf by the activist organization Detroit Eviction Defense.
“Those houses are a part of us,” Talley tells the supporters, “That’s our family. And it would destroy me to have to leave my family behind and go somewhere else. You have all warmed our hearts, so thank God for fighting with us day in and day out.”
The battle to keep residents in Gratiot-McDougall homes is the most recent of dozens of housing-related struggles that Detroit Eviction Defense (DED) has taken on over the last three years. A spin-off working group of Detroit’s Occupy movement, DED has grown into a diverse and dynamic coalition of activists of all shapes and sizes - tonight’s crowd is a blur of beanie-sporting hipsters, retired steelworkers, single mothers and housing lawyers. Through horizontal organizing and a smattering of legal and extra-legal tactics, DED has kept dozens of Detroiters from being evicted.
Even in one of the country’s empties cities, housing is no guarantee. The Motor City has been hit particularly hard by the housing crisis. Between 2004 and 2006, nearly three-quarters of mortgages written in the city were subprime. Detroit has faced one of the highest mortgage and tax foreclosure rates in the country since. This year some 50,000 Detroiters are facing foreclosures and eviction over property taxes.
Access to water is almost as tenuous as that to housing and the two are connected.
A housekeeping chore in the city’s bankruptcy filing, the city shut off water to more than 10,000 bill-delinquent Detroiters last summer. Many unpaid water bills, already inflated by the city’s leaking water system, get transferred to the home’s property tax where they grease the slippery slope towards foreclosure.
Organizers at DED have developed a diverse array of tactics to keep Detroiters in their homes - from funding legal battles to inundating courtrooms during foreclosure hearings to physically standing guard over homes targeted for eviction.
Local attorney and DED member Vanessa Fluker put it this way. “I learned this a long time ago: courts are fine, but that’s not necessarily your justice avenue,” she said. “If you want to get justice you have to have a parallel - while you’re fighting in court, you have to be fighting out in the streets.”
A large portion of Detroit Eviction Defense is made up of people who have themselves had their housing threatened, like Jerry Cullers.
“My situation happened in 2012,” he said. “The day before Halloween was when they put the dumpsters outside of my house. From that day until this day, I’m still jumping when I hear loud noises on my street.”
When a friend recommended he call DED, the group sent a cohort immediately. Diane Feeley, a retired union autoworker recalls their first interaction, “When I first met Jerry, he was looking for boxes to pack up his things,” she said. “Then we saved his house.”
With DED’s legal, financial and emotional support, Cullers was able to negotiate a modification on his mortgage. “Hey, protest works,” he said. “You’ve got to stand up for something.” Cullers went on to become a stalwart of the organization. He now coordinates activist actions with community groups across the country that are resisting foreclosures. “Once you go through a situation like that, there is just something inside you,” he said.
Detroit Eviction Defense has seen a number of other victories in its years of operations. It helped Urealdene Henderson, a thirty-six year Steelworkers union member, win the right to buy back her home from foreclosure by running a smear campaign on the company trying to strong-arm her out of her home. As the Huffington Post reported, a weeklong DED-organized vigil successfully defended Jennifer Britt’s home long enough for her to win a mortgage modification. This winter, DED helped Daryl and Lula Burke stand up to the investor who swooped up their home from foreclosure. With their support, the couple was able to bargained hard enough to buy back their property.
For life-long activist, Jim Dwight, work with Detroit Eviction Defense has been some of the most rewarding. “We actually have victories here,” he said. “In other issues, like the wars...there weren’t any ‘wins’ you could see. In this work, we actually get to help people, who would otherwise be on the street, stay in their homes.”
Patrick Sheehan is a teacher and writer living in Detroit. Follow him at @PSrealtweets