Detroit Just Had the Single Largest Tax Foreclosure in American History
Unlike so many industrial innovations, the revolving door was not developed in Detroit. It took its first spin in Philadelphia in 1888, the brainchild of Theophilus Van Kannel, the soon-to-be founder of the Van Kannel Revolving Door Company. Its purpose was twofold: to better insulate buildings from the cold and to allow greater numbers of people easier entry at any given time.
On March 31st at the Wayne Country Treasurer’s Office, that Victorian-era invention was accomplishing neither objective. Then again, no door in the history of architecture—rotating or otherwise—could have accommodated the latest perversity Detroit officials were inflicting on city residents: the potential eviction of tens of thousands, possibly as many as 100,000 people, all at precisely the same time.
Little wonder that it seemed as if everyone was getting stuck in the rotating doors of that Wayne County office building on the last day residents could pay their past-due property taxes or enter a payment plan to do so. Those who didn’t, the city warned, would lose their homes to tax foreclosure, the process by which a local government repossesses a house because of unpaid property taxes.
“Oh, my lord,” exclaimed one bundled-up woman when she first spotted the river of people, their documents in envelopes and folders of every sort, pouring out of cars, hunched over walkers, driving electric scooters, being pushed in wheelchairs, or simply attempting to jam their way on foot into the building. The afternoon was gray and unseasonably cold. The following day, in the middle of a snowless meadow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the governor of California would announce the state’s first-ever water restrictions as a result of an unprecedented, climate-change-influenced drought. Here in Michigan, city residents were facing another type of man-made disaster: possibly the largest single tax foreclosure in American history.
“It’s the last day to pay,” one woman heading toward the rotating glass chamber yelled to a pedestrian who had slowed to watch the commotion. Inside, a Wayne County Sheriff’s Department officer-turned-traffic-controller boomed instructions to a snaking line of people. “When you get to the eighth floor, you will get a number. Keep that number! Then go to the fifth floor.’”
The eighth floor, however, turned out to be little more than another human traffic jam, a holding space for thousands of anxious homeowners who faced hours of waiting before reaching the desk of some overworked city representative down on five. Yet, as a post office delivery worker gaping at the fiasco told me, this was less hectic than it had been a only few days earlier, when the treasurer’s office had rented out the Second Baptist Church across the street. There, people waited for the opportunity to enter the revolving doors to take the elevator to the eighth floor before heading for the fifth floor to…you get the gist.
In fact, the whole week had been a god-awful mess. A day earlier, rumors had it, a woman had passed out in the elevator between the eighth and fifth floors en route to “making arrangements,” the euphemism for getting on a payment plan that might save your home.
“What happens if you can’t pay?” a slender man asked me as we dodged a new wave of people surging through the glass cylinder.
“Then they sell your house at auction,” I replied.