Alex Alsup has been researching and trying to understand tax foreclosure in Detroit for the better part of a decade.
Alsup’s blog, GooBing Detroit, used Google Street View to visually compare the conditions in Detroit neighborhoods over time. The house-by-house timelapse of the damage wrought by the city’s tax foreclosure crisis often showed up on Twitter, and still does, even though that site has been dormant for over a year.
But Alsup recently started two new projects around his interest in tax foreclosure, a space Alsup has worked in since 2012, first at Loveland Technologies, a Detroit-based property data company, and then as the director of housing stability at the Rocket Community Fund. Alsup recently went back to Loveland’s current iteration, called Regrid, where he’ll lead the Data with Purpose program. And this April, he launched a Substack, called The Chargeback, to give him more space to talk about his research on tax foreclosure and neighborhood conditions.
We recently spoke with Alsup about the latest with Regrid, his new Substack and some major housing trends in Detroit.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s talk a bit about the housing situation in Detroit. You recently highlighted the trend of rehabilitation of abandoned homes on Twitter and in an article for Crain’s. What does that say about the market?
Alex Alsup: This trend — of fixing up homes nobody would have really thought about touching, in surprising corners of the city — started near the beginning of the pandemic. That seems to suggest that there was and maybe still is a migration to the Detroit Metro area. And from what I’ve heard anecdotally from people who manage and rehab property in the city, there have been a lot of former Detroiters, due to competition and price increases in the suburbs, who have been returning to the city, creating a demand for lower cost rental housing. That’s producing this demand for additional housing units that need to be brought online. And the fastest and easiest way to do that is with this long idle, vacant, single family housing stock.
You’ve also documented that tax foreclosure has been steadily decreasing. What do you think are the forces behind that trend?
With tax foreclosure, the more layers of the onion you peel back, the more questions that you wind up with so I never feel like I am fully confident in any answer that I give. I just see more questions that I want to get answered. And “why” is always the hardest one to pin down.
And actually, when we talk about tax foreclosure, we’re talking about multiple related but clearly delineated systems at the same time. At the biggest level, you have the municipal finance system. A subset of that is the property tax system. And then a subset of that is the delinquent tax system. At the smallest level is the tax foreclosure system. While related, they all have their own rules and processes associated with them.
So I have been observing both a decline this year in the very short term in the number of homeowners and occupied rental properties that are at risk of winding up in the tax foreclosure auction. But I’ve also been documenting a decline in the delinquent tax numbers — the number of properties that owe any amount of delinquent property taxes over the last couple of years. And that’s in some ways much more consequential than seeing the foreclosure numbers decline. Because you can get homeowners out of foreclosure risk, but if they still owe delinquent property taxes, they’re gonna be back there again the next year or two.
So for the first time in a while, since the beginning of this long foreclosure crisis, homeowners are both getting out of tax foreclosure risk and exiting the delinquent tax system in really substantial numbers. Which is really encouraging. That’s a combination of things like the City of Detroit’s Homeowners Property Tax Exemption and the Detroit Tax Relief Fund from the Gilbert Family Foundation, which is actually paying off the debt of homeowners who get the exemption, thereby qualifying for the Pay As You Stay program which reduces back taxes.
That’s a lot of good news. I feel like people who have paid attention to housing in Detroit for a while are used to being pessimistic. So, do you feel like things are genuinely improving? Are people’s lives more stable? Are city and county programs really working better?
The fact that homeowners are exiting tax delinquency on their property at the rate they are is an unalloyed good thing. There’s no way that that’s bad. What we always say in “the tax foreclosure world” is that tax foreclosure is fatal. Whatever else you’re dealing with, whether it’s jobs or schools or the condition of your home, if you’re tax foreclosed, you’re not going to have an opportunity to address any of those things. In 2015, it took a lot of energy to get yourself out of tax foreclosure risk, and you had to do it basically every year because there was no sustainable way to get your delinquent taxes eliminated.
But of course other issues in Detroiters’ lives are still issues, especially when it comes to things like home repair. If those issues go unaddressed, they can eventually force someone out of a home the same way that tax foreclosure can. But the fact that there is now room to talk about home repair is indicative of the success that we’ve seen around tax foreclosure. Because, again, if you’re facing 15,000 tax foreclosures every year, there’s no space to talk about home repair.
In general though I’m cautious because I don’t want people to think like we can just chill out now. There are many more issues to work through and we’re always thinking about what we’re solving for next. Home repair, for example, is an incredibly tricky and important topic to work on next.
You started a Substack recently called The Chargeback. What is the general theme and why did you start it?
I had been stretching the boundaries of what it made sense to be publishing on Twitter. And so I felt like I should just have a place where I could organize my thoughts a little bit more clearly around tax foreclosure and land use related issues in Detroit. I just wanted to have a place where I could publish stuff freely and openly for people to read and hopefully contribute to the conversation and understanding of what’s going on with tax foreclosure and property issues in the city.
Outlier Media: Tell me about this new Regrid program you’ll be heading. Who’s going to be using it?
A couple of months ago, Regrid launched a program called Data with Purpose, which is essentially the social benefit arm of the company. We’ve amassed parcel data over the years, which we now maintain and license to other companies and users. We want to be able to get that data into the hands of researchers and academics and nonprofits that have public purpose missions that they want to pursue. We’re doing it on a “pay what you can” basis so we can support the kinds of projects that this company really started off being interested in. People and organizations can tell us what their project is and how they’re going to use our data. If it seems like a good fit, we can equip them with the data that they need to do the project.
What kind of projects do you envision people using this data for?
I could see someone being interested in national parcel data for modeling climate change or understanding housing changes through an equity lens. I know some organizations are doing research on land conservation. But there are a lot more potential applications than I can dream up.
I know Regrid has been steadily updating its database. How comprehensive is it at the moment?
Regrid has 99% of all of the parcel boundaries in the United States with underlying assessment information. One of the issues with dealing with parcel data at scale is that every Assessor’s Department structures their data differently. They generally all contain the same kind of information, but they call that data by different names in different states. So it can be very hard if you’re trying to do a national or statewide or even regional analysis to reconcile the fact that you have 1,000 departments that are all calling their data by different names. We have a standardized schema that makes it a lot easier to compare and contrast and use data from across the country.
AARON MONDRY at firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.