Foreclosures leave a wake of drugs, squatters, arson

Joel Kurth, and Christine MacDonald
An empty home on Greensboro sports a warning to squatters. The Rev. Raynard Sims, a neighbor, always answers his door with a Glock.

Detroit — One of the better houses on the block has a warning spray-painted on the plywood door: "Don't Get Shot."

A few doors down, two homes are freshly burned. Up the block are the demolished remains of three drug houses. On the sidewalk are empty crack cocaine baggies.

This is Greensboro Street after the foreclosure bomb. Ten years ago, it was home to aspirational working-class families in sturdy brick homes. Today, the block is the sort of place where a preacher, the Rev. Raynard Sims, answers his door with a Glock holstered to his pajamas.

"I walk around strapped. I have to," said Sims, 49, a 30-year resident of the street on Detroit's east side near Outer Drive and Harper.

"When you have to decide which Kroger bags you can leave overnight in the car because you have to leave one hand open to hold your gun as you rush inside, that's when you know: The neighborhood you knew is gone."

The street is an extreme example of the hell that subprime loans and foreclosures have wrought on Detroit. Lenders offered easy money through home equity loans and refinances. Residents signed on the dotted line.

Now, all but five of 38 homes on a stretch of Greensboro have gone into mortgage or tax foreclosure since 2006. That's more than double the citywide average of 1-in-3, but its story of loss — personal, financial, physical and social — resonates throughout Detroit.

That's because foreclosure is a bomb with multiple detonations. The first comes when homes are abandoned. Then they are neglected, stripped of metals, left open for squatters and drug dealers. When nothing is left, they often burn.

In the last five years, the police conducted multiple drug raids of homes on Greensboro from Wade to just beyond Elmdale. Four homes have burned. Four were demolished last year at a cost of $15,000 apiece.

Eighteen former homeowners on Greensboro declared bankruptcy since 2006, federal records show. At least 11 families who moved from the block no longer live in Detroit.

"It was insane. Everything went just like that. I could cry just thinking about it," said Quaneda Real, who now lives in Highland Park.

She filed for bankruptcy, slept in a car for a week and moved into a house with no heat or water after losing her home on Greensboro.

Real owed $120,000 to now-insolvent Shore Bank. In 2010, the bank sold the home for $3,000 to Kelli Davis.

The home was empty less than a year. During that time, it was set on fire. Vandals stole pipes, the furnace and toilet. When Davis opened the door of the brick bungalow for the first time, more than a dozen pit bull puppies walked out.

Someone had left hay and adult dogs inside the home, presumably to protect it. The dogs bred, said Davis.

"I bleached the floor four times. There was (poop) everywhere," said Davis, who went through with the sale because the price was right.

Down the street, Anthony Hannaford sat on his stoop one morning, pointing at empty houses and piles of rubble and rattling off what went wrong.

That landlord stopped paying his taxes. ... That house was foreclosed after its owner went off to war in Iraq and died. ... A woman OD'd in that drug house. ... Squatters live across the street.

"We try to clean up the yards (of the abandoned homes) as much as we can, but the city doesn't come out here at all," said Hannaford, 44, who has lived on Greensboro all his life.

"But some of these houses, we just let them go. I don't want anyone breaking my windows for calling the police if they're stripping."

It wasn't always this way. In 1985, still in his teens, Sims scraped together enough money for a down payment on a $24,000 house at 9425 Greensboro. He was the fourth African-American on the block. Hannaford, who is white, had been there with his parents for 15 years.

The neighborhood, part of the David Trombly's Harper Avenue subdivision, emerged in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Homes were built on lots close together and buffered by wide alleys.

They were solid houses for families who worked at nearby auto plants: 900 to 1,500 square feet. Two or three bedrooms. Few frills, but sturdy and meant to last. In 2010, median family income in the neighborhood was $45,000 and the poverty rate was 36 percent, both slightly better than average for Detroit, according to the U.S. Census.

"We used to compete to see who could grow the prettiest flowers," said Sims, pastor of the Unity and Faith Christian Church in Highland Park.

"It was a neighborhood. And my definition of neighborhood is people sharing and looking out for each other."

In 1989, Gwen Mangrum joined the firefighters, teachers and factory workers who lived on the block. She was a single mother who works as an auditor for the state of Michigan. Every night, she would walk or ride her bicycle up and down the block.

"It was so nice. It really was," said Mangrum, 53.

Mortgage companies thought it was nice, too. Their agents came calling.

Mangrum's 900-square-foot home was paid off by 2001, but she took out a $25,000 home equity loan to pay for a new roof, windows and insulation.

"It was a big explosion," she said. "Everyone I knew was like, 'You need to re-fi. You are sitting on money if you don't.' "

Sims likened the greed of the time to a "trick bag," a trap from which it's difficult to escape.

In 2004, after months of seeing TV ads about home refinancing, Sims called Household Finance Corp. Within weeks, an appraiser working with the company told him his home was worth $101,000, five times what he paid for it.

 Gwen Mangrum lost her home on Greensboro after taking refinancing loans and racking up $50,000 in debt.  Keith Williams, right, bought Mangrum's foreclosed home for $1,100 three years later.  During that time, thieves gutted the building.

"Man, those guys were good," Sims said. "They come to your home, they say 'You want some money? Show us your bills.' Then they come back six months later and say 'You want some more?' They were our friend until the bottom fell out."

Sims took a home equity line of credit for $25,000. He brought in his bills to the closing. The lender paid them: an $8,200 car loan, $3,600 to a jeweler and $4,000 to credit card companies. He left the meeting with a personal check for $7,700.

By then, Mangrum had married. It wasn't going well. Spending money was better than arguing, Mangrum acknowledged.

She refinanced again, paying off a van and pushing her debt to $50,000.

"They kept offering and offering money. It was like 'come here, try this.' They even suggested ways to spend the money," Mangrum said.

In October 2006, Lamar Calloway bought his first house. His credit score was less than 500. Even so, Wells Fargo gave him a mortgage for $104,000 for a five-bedroom, 1,500-square-foot brick bungalow catty-corner from Sims.

"I was shocked I got approved," said Calloway, a truck driver for Eastern Market. "When we walked into the house for the first time, it was like, 'Wow. We finally made it.' "

Nothing was as Calloway expected when he and his family moved in. Not the home. Not Greensboro.

Pipes in one bedroom were missing. Carpet covered a broken floor. Fresh paint masked mold in the bathroom. The living room chandelier was strung with wires from a stereo speaker.

"We were so excited to get a house, we just rushed in," Calloway said. "We were so blind."

Within one year, Calloway's monthly mortgage payment doubled to $1,200 from $642. He picked up extra shifts, working 80-hour, six-day weeks. He missed birthday parties and graduations for his two children.

It wasn't enough. He filed for bankruptcy in 2009 in an effort to suspend foreclosure proceedings while debts were refinanced.

"I busted my butt to keep that house," he said. "My wife didn't know what was going on. I was too embarrassed to tell her. We've been together 25 years, but that house almost made us fall apart."

The couple arrived during the early wave of foreclosures and left as the neighborhood was decimated. In the year before they moved to Greensboro, two homes went into foreclosure. In the next 15 months, the number grew to 13. By 2012, when they had decided to leave, 33 homes had been foreclosed.

Foreclosure notices by law are posted on homes. They were so common on Greensboro they had become a running joke, said Sims, the pastor.

"Every day, it was like, 'Man, you got a letter, too?' " he said. "We were smiling on the outside but crying on the inside. All you (had) worked for was gone."

The Rev. Raynard Sims, a 30-year resident of Greensboro Street, said, "When you have to decide which Kroger bags you can leave overnight in the car because you have to leave one hand open to hold your gun as you rush inside, that's when you know: The neighborhood you knew is gone."

Sims' first notice came in fall 2008. His initial $25,000 home equity loan soared to $104,000 because he refinanced again, bundling it with another mortgage on a rental property. The loan was sold multiple times and the interest rate ballooned to 13.99 percent.

Sims was late on a payment by more than 60 days. That put his loan into default, a condition in which the bank can foreclose unless the entire balance is paid. Sims paid $5,000 in hopes of getting out of default. Wells Fargo foreclosed after he missed more payments.

Mangrum made it to 2012. That was a few years after she moved out as her marriage dissolved. She allowed her ex-husband to stay in the home in hopes of making the 2009 divorce easier. He was supposed to pay the mortgage, but her name stayed on it.

In 11 years, Mangrum went from owning the home outright to owing $75,000 to LaSalle Bank Midwest.

"Foreclosure is nothing I ever anticipated. It's depressing and sad," said Mangrum, who now lives in an east side rental and plans to move from Detroit for good once she retires from the state.

Her home was one of 23 on the block that banks foreclosed in the past 10 years. Another 10 were foreclosed for nonpayment of taxes.

Seemingly overnight, "everything went to hell," said Sims.

Squatters occupied Mangrum's house and several others on the street. Men in vans pulled up to empty homes and removed furnaces and appliances. It was tough to know if they worked for the mortgage companies or were criminals, Sims said.

Drug dealers took over three homes in the middle of the block that went into foreclosure, Calloway said. Confused customers would knock on his door at all hours looking for drugs, he said.

Police raided the vacant homes in 2011, 2012 and 2013, city records show.

"The drug dealers moved in and destroyed a lot of (the homes)," said Detroit Police Lt. Chuck Flanagan, the former head of the department's Narcotics Section.

"We knew about the drug activity and raided those places several times. Because they're vacant homes, you don't need a search warrant, so we were able to make a lot of arrests."

All but five of 38 homes on a  stretch of Greensboro Street on Detroit's east side have gone into bank or tax foreclosure since 2006.

In 2012, Calloway gave up. He abandoned his bankruptcy case, left and allowed the home to slip into foreclosure.

The breaking point: Rushing through shopping on Christmas Eve because he feared the home would be burglarized if it was empty for several hours. His boss helped the family move into a rental home in Roseville.

"It was just too many worries. Too much chaos," Calloway said.

Sims filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and outlasted multiple foreclosure notices that began arriving in 2008.

The bankruptcy gave him time for his luck to turn. In 2011, after he emerged from bankruptcy, Wells Fargo deeded the house to him. The same year, his longtime neighbor moved to Hawaii.

It was easier to give away than to sell, so the owner deeded him the house next door. He maintains both, mows lawns of vacant homes and still plants flowers.

"It's called pride," he said.

And then, just after the neighborhood hit bottom, calm returned to Greensboro.

Sims' goddaughter, Kelli Davis, has spent four years making improvements on the house she bought for $3,000 across the street from him. It was stripped completely when she moved in. She's spent $25,000 on remodeling, including a security system and bars on both sides of the windows after three break-ins.

She and other neighbors boarded open homes and spray-painted "Don't Get Shot" and "Booby Trapped" on doors to scare off squatters.

"It's quiet since no one is on the block," said Davis, who works nearby at a Fiat Chrysler plant.

All but 12 houses are now vacant. At least three foreclosed homes are being renovated, while private investment companies have bought eight others. Another foreclosed home, though, has been overrun by drug dealers and squatters this summer, Sims said.

"Things will turn around eventually," said Keith Williams, a disabled factory worker.

He bought Mangrum's foreclosed home from the bank in 2012 for $1,100. During the three years it was vacant, thieves gutted the building.

Keith Williams boarded up the back door, secured it with three padlocks and two 10-inch bolts, and removed the door knobs.
"If you're going to steal from me, I at least want you to earn it," he said.

Williams is picking away at repairs, racking up $10,000 on credit cards. He boarded the back door, secured it with three padlocks and two 10-inch bolts nailed into the house. Burglars still have gotten in, so he removed the door knobs inside to slow them down.

"If you're going to steal from me, I at least want you to earn it," Williams said.

In October, the house next door went into foreclosure. Williams boarded the windows and secured the doors with 5-inch screws.

It wasn't enough. Thieves first stole the furnace and hot water heater. The week before Thanksgiving, the front door was kicked in and the refrigerator, stove, kitchen table, glass shelves and a mattress and box spring were stolen.

"Why would anyone steal a used mattress?" Williams asked, as he walked through the ransacked house. "I can't watch it every day. It's not my property. I have my own problems."

He's among those bracing for another foreclosure storm. His tax bill climbed to $2,100, twice what he paid for the home. Another 27 homes on the street are delinquent on taxes. Property records show 15 are eligible for foreclosure this year.

In December, Williams gave Mangrum a tour of her old house. It was the second time back since she moved out. The first time, she was greeted by squatters who had knocked down the back door, ate in her kitchen and collected her mail.

Williams cataloged all his repairs. Mangrum remembered the good times, how she used to lay on pillows next to the fireplace and stare up at the plaster ceiling.

The ceiling collapsed when Williams bought the house. Thieves had stolen shingles from the roof, the last big purchase on Mangrum's home equity line of credit that drove her into foreclosure.

"I am so sorry you had to do all this," Mangrum told Williams. "It's terrible. This neighborhood didn't need to end up like this. It really didn't."

  • More than 1-in-3 homes have been foreclosed in 10 years in Detroit, the equivalent of every house in Buffalo.

  • Subprime lending was rampant in Detroit and areas with the most high-cost lending are the most blighted.

  • Foreclosures hit Detroit harder than almost any city, but Detroit officials did little to hold lenders accountable. | Twitter: @cityhallinsider, (313) 222-2396