Geraldine Smith-Bey, 58, lost her house in 2015 to foreclosure. It ended up on the auction block after she fell behind on her taxes. Photo by Aaron Mondry

After six years, a housing dispute between a nonprofit and one of their tenants and vocal critics has finally come to a conclusion.

“I’m happy because I got my divorce,” said Geraldine Smith-Bey, who is 58. “I finally got the deed to my house.”

The “divorcing” couple was Smith-Bey and Storehouse of Hope, a nonprofit hoping to start a community land trust that bought Smith-Bey’s East Village neighborhood Bungalow-style home in the 2015 Wayne County tax foreclosure auction.

Smith-Bey’s home was on the auction block because of a $1,211 delinquent tax bill. Like many Detroiters during the city’s multi-year foreclosure crisis, where approximately one-third of all properties underwent tax foreclosure since 2008, she wasn’t aware of and hadn’t tried to take advantage of the Poverty Tax Exemption that would have waived her property taxes.

In that year’s auction, Storehouse of Hope purchased 15 homes, including Smith-Bey’s, in response to the scourge of tax foreclosures in the city. In 2015 alone, there were 24,793 foreclosures in Detroit. The majority of the homes Storehouse of Hope bought in the auction were occupied.

The organization hoped to stabilize the homes and the tenants’ finances, so that tenants could eventually purchase them back at a price below market value and be part of the land trust. Under the unique arrangement, Storehouse of Hope would still own the land, thus adding an additional protection against foreclosure. 

“Storehouse of Hope was born out of an attempt to fix problems—tax foreclosure and affordable housing—that nobody else was really trying to deal with,” said the Rev. Joan Ross, in an article in Detour Detroit earlier this year. 

Ross founded Storehouse of Hope and chairs its board. She did not respond to multiple interview attempts for this story, and Storehouse of Hope board members declined to comment. 

A strained alliance

The relationship between Smith-Bey and Storehouse of Hope was sour from the start, showcasing the pressures low-income residents and advocates face in keeping people housed. The purchase saved her from eviction and allowed her to remain in the house she’s lived in for 20 years. But it also brought its own troubles—for both parties. 

Ross assured people living in its newly purchased properties that Storehouse of Hope would undertake all essential repairs. But Storehouse of Hope deferred fixing multiple issues on Smith-Bey’s home—issues Ross has said began before the organization purchased it. The home was in desperate need of a new roof, which meant the ceilings and light fixtures leaked whenever it rained. Black mold had grown in the kitchen from the constant moisture, plaster was peeling from the walls, and the front porch was collapsing.

The home became practically unlivable for Smith-Bey and her two children, now in their 20s. In 2021 alone, it was cited for 54 blight violations totalling $21,550, according to the city’s Open Data Portal. 

Smith-Bey said she withheld rent multiple times to force Storehouse of Hope to undertake repairs. Storehouse of Hope, in turn, filed an eviction notice in 2018.

The organization  eventually fixed the porches and installed a new roof after the Detour article was published. But its representatives weren’t consistently coming to the table to negotiate a sale, according to Smith-Bey. 

The escalation ended with Smith-Bey reaching out to Detroit Eviction Defense earlier this year. That organization got mission-aligned organizations Charlevoix Villages Association and Detroit Will Breathe to join an effort. Using blog posts, Facebook Live events, rallies and appeals to the city (through the Buildings Department and members of the City Council), the groups began a campaign to pressure Ross and Storehouse of Hope to sell the home back to Smith-Bey.

In July, the groups picketed outside the offices of North End Woodward Community Coalition, a nonprofit organization where Ross is the chair of the board. Brian Silverstein, an organizer with Charlevoix Villages Association and Detroit Will Breathe, said the protest brought Ross back to the table. 

It took a while, but the two sides eventually came to an agreement about the sale. Smith-Bey bought her house in July for $14,200. She raised the money through a GoFundMe campaign

The lengthy and at times ugly dispute leaves the fate of Storehouse of Hope, which began with lofty goals, in limbo.

Storehouse of Hope kept residents in homes that the residents otherwise would have lost to tax foreclosure. It set affordable rents, paid taxes and water bills for each occupied residence and undertook repairs on some of their 15 homes. It also installed several roof solar arrays with grant support. 

But converting the mostly low-income residents into stable homeowners proved to be difficult. 

After purchasing the homes in 2015, the nonprofit projected a five-year timeline to bring residents to homeownership. But as of today, none of the homes had been bought by the tenants, according to Wayne County property records. 

‘I wanted to walk away’

In the end, Smith-Bey is overjoyed to get her home back, but the path to stable homeownership isn’t certain. 

The whole ordeal took a physical and mental toll on Smith-Bey. She said her blood pressure spiked and she lost 35 pounds. 

“There were plenty of times when I wanted to walk away,” she said. 

But now, her blood pressure is down, she’s gaining weight and sleeping again. 

“I’m not waking up in the middle of the night crying anymore. I’m not sitting in my bedroom depressed in the dark,” she said.

But the interior of the house requires a lot of work, including installing new drywall and replacing much of the electrical and plumbing systems. Smith-Bey will depend on her two sons, who have lived with her through the dispute, to do much of the work. And she plans to hold more fundraisers, including selling dinners and hosting a yard sale to pay for the renovations.

“We’re excited for the inside to finally get the love that it’s missed these last six years,” she said.

A report earlier this year from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions Initiative found that Detroit’s old housing stock and large low-income population has created an enormous need for home repair grants. But few programs in the city offer flexible dollars for repairs to this population group. 

Smith-Bey is also looking to get the Homeowners Property Exemption (HOPE), formerly known as the Poverty Tax Exemption, to help her with taxes going forward. HOPE allows homeowners below a certain income level to get a full or partial exemption on their taxes. 

“Storehouse of Hope wasn’t the original source of Geraldine’s problems,” said Silverstein of the Charlevoix Villages Association. “This never would have happened if she’d been able to get the Poverty Tax Exemption or was put on a payment plan with the county. Instead, they took her house and passed it on to this nonprofit.”

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221.