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How a Black Detroit Homeowner Unknowingly Lost Her Home Over Unpaid Property Taxes, Only to Have it Given Away For Free

Detroit resident Tomeka Langford couldn’t have imagined having the home she thought she owned taken from her and then awarded to someone else for free. 

In 2010, Langford purchased the home in the Banglatown section of Detroit for $700. For the next two years, Langford and her husband, a contractor, made repairs on the home while remaining in their apartment. 

Photo by Thirdman:

“We had to do all new wiring,” Langford told The Guardian. “We had to put in an electrical box. Lighting. Hot water tank. Furnace. We had to put a few windows in, and then we had to put in some doors and some storm doors. We sanded the floors.”

Langford estimates that she paid upwards of $7,000 in repairs and was looking forward to making more repairs. However, in early 2012, Langford realized that someone had broken into the home. The experience made Langford and her family leery of being at the property and they let it sit without repairs. The burglars stole everything they could.

“They stole the storm door!” she said. “We had furniture there. We had, like, a whole house!”

She added, “We had put all this money in it. It made me angry,” she said. “It was a lot of hard work, a lot of money. The fact that somebody would do that – I found that very, very upsetting.”

A few months later, Langford realized that her home had been placed on Wayne County’s property tax foreclosure auction website.  

Soon after, Langford lost her home due to nonpayment of taxes, according to the county. 

The Guardian reported that court documents reveal that Langford only made one payment of $689 to a tax bill that was over $5,000. However, Langford says she never received foreclosure warnings, despite county records indicating that she was notified of foreclosure proceedings. 

Langford said says she was on a payment plan, and making regular payments on her back taxes. She also indicated that she had trouble receiving all her mail at the new house, but she expected the treasurer’s office would have alerted her to the pending foreclosure when she dropped off another property tax payment. She said she wasn’t told anything when she made her payments. And by the time she found out, it was too late.

The county maintains she was informed. But, The Guardian reports, a document signed by a process server show that two postal mailings to Tomeka are still marked “Delivery Information Pending.”

Wayne County has seen many homes lost to tax foreclosures. According to data collected by Regrid, between 2002 and 2016, 143,958 Detroit houses were foreclosed and sold in the county’s tax foreclosure auction.

The Gift of Homeownership

When Langford’s home was placed on auction, it did not sell on two occasions. The property was given to Land Bank, who later sold it to Write A House. 

Write A House, an organization dedicated to supporting low to moderate-income writers with homeownership, will enhance the Detroit literary scene. Write A House awarded Langford’s home to Ann Elizabeth Moore as a gift. 

Two years later, Moore was ready to sell the home, as she’d gotten a job outside of Detroit, and that’s when the problems began. 

“After a two-year period, the house was supposed to go in my name. The deed did – the document that gives me the right to own the property. But this is different from a title, as mortgage companies will describe it, because a deed is a document while a title is a legal framework, a set of conditions that confer uncontestable ownership of a property. The title didn’t change hands,” Moore wrote in The Guardian. “I discovered this when I put the house on the market. That was when my title agency informed me that the title to the house was still in Tomeka Langford’s name.”

The process was complex and confusing for Moore.

“I found the quiet title process perplexing and sad, but that was before I met Tomeka. That was before I heard, first-hand, how a process made relatively easy for me was in fact traumatic for her,” Moore shared.

Title Wars 

Langford had dealt with the pain of losing her home in foreclosure and was ready to put the past behind her. Yet one day, she received a notice in the mail that she was being sued for ownership as Moore was looking to secure a title for the home. 

“It’s almost like a death,” Langford told The Guardian. “You don’t never forget it, but you learn to move on.”

After becoming frustrated with attorneys and a trove of municipal agencies that left her feeling helpless and that she had no recourse; Langford signed the title over to Moore in 2019. Moore eventually sold the property.

Possible Protections for Detroit Homeowners

Detroit city council president Mary Sheffield and the Coalition for Property Tax Justice have introduced a new plan for protecting over-assessed homeowners who are paying higher taxes than they should be.

Black homeowners are more likely to have their homes overvalued by tax assessors, Pew Trusts shows.

The Detroit proposal points out that the city and county “stole” family homes, reduced or destroyed intergenerational wealth through over-assessing. The proposal seeks to pair repair to Black homeowners how have experienced this.

“Dignity takings require more than reparations,” the plan reads. “They require dignity restoration, which puts dispossessed individuals and communities in the driver’s seat, allowing them to determine how they are made whole.”

The proposal wants for those who lost homes to foreclosure between 2009 and 2020, to be given employment and small business support; a $1 side lot; and either a Land Bank-rehabbed property, a Land Bank property and home repair grant, or a rental voucher.

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