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Detroit’s Foreclosure Crisis and the Need for ‘Information Justice’

An open data project sought to battle tax foreclosures by arming residents with information. It may have empowered property speculators more than anyone.
Nfr Esters
Nfr EstersJessica McKenzie

Nfr Esters knew she couldn't save the family house through conventional means. She had inherited the duplex on the East Side of Detroit from her great-grandfather in 2010, but a pipe burst before she moved back to the city, flooding the basement and racking up a $4,000 water bill that the city added to her property taxes. Esters would surely lose the house to tax foreclosure—but there was still hope.

Every year, Wayne County auctions off tax-foreclosed properties for a starting bid of $500. Since the auction went online in 2010, anyone can participate remotely. Esters planned to bid on her own home, but she worried a speculator would find it and decide it was a good investment property after all the time and money she spent rehabilitating it. One day, Esters’s husband came inside while their girls played on the front lawn and said a woman was taking photos of their home. Esters worried she had been sent by the county treasurer to "build a database" to market her house.