Excerpted From: Samantha Rudelich, The Detroit Land Bank Authority: A Modern Tool Perpetuating Racism & Classism in the City, 30 Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law and Policy 619 (Spring, 2023) (159 Footnotes) (Full Document)


SamanthaRudelichThere's a myth that Detroit is an abandoned city with massive amounts of vacant land just waiting to be developed. This overly simplistic understanding of Detroit erases not just the people and communities that persist in the city, but the legal and structural land systems that created vast amounts of vacant land largely inaccessible to local residents. In 2015, Motorcity Mapping, Loveland Technologies, and Data Driven Detroit created maps of Detroit titled "Where Are All the People in Detroit?" These maps were an effort to shed light and honor the 700,000 people that occupied the city at the time by mapping the "occupied, partially occupied, and possibly occupied" properties in Detroit. The maps dispel the myth that Detroit is an unoccupied blank canvas by showing that 81% of structures are occupied and 54% of properties contain occupied structures. Historic and current land practices pushed out and dispossessed residents of land ownership despite vast availability of property.

Regardless of this overstated myth, the question remains: what happens with this seemingly-vacant and foreclosed land? To understand the evolution of the land system in Detroit and the city's approach to vacant and foreclosed land, analyzing one of the newer systemic barriers and legal systems that govern land in Detroit is crucial. The Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) is a quasigovernment organization created for the purpose of managing the city's vacant and abandoned properties. DLBA and its practices have a profound impact on the city land system and residents' access to land. But the residents of the city are dissatisfied with DLBA failing to meet its purpose of developing the city with community and local residents centered in that work. A critical look at the legal mechanisms that govern DLBA's work and its practical implications help explain how this entity continues to operate in ways that bar local residents from obtaining title to land and destroy existing communities. There is an opportunity to leverage DLBA's power in the city in order to promote racial equity and local homeownership.

This Note analyzes the current land system in Detroit and provides a path forward centered on the established, resilient Detroit community. Part II provides background on access to land in the city of Detroit and the ways the city has used land systems to deepen economic disparities between racial and social classes. Part III gives an overview of the rise of land banks as a tool for land management across the country. Part IV explains the legal framework and operations of the DLBA. It uses recent court cases to highlight the critiques and practical implications of DLBA's operations. Part V provides practical implications of barring land ownership to Detroit residents. It analyzes both the ways in which DLBA should shift its current practices to align better with centering local Detroiters in the work and how to change its legal mechanism to better meet community needs. It argues that DLBA needs to be held accountable directly to community stakeholders and reorganized to accommodate and uplift native Detroiters in pursuit of land ownership.

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The way that we construct our land systems and the terms we use to define "vacant" and "abandoned" land have significant meaning. Conflicts of land ownership and property in Detroit are complicated issues that have deep historical roots and present-day implications. There's been a national shift to land banks to deal with land amounts of vacant and tax delinquent land, but the focus on vacancy erases not only the people that continue to live in these cities, but also the structures and systems that push people off the land to begin with. If the city of Detroit is going to shift power to DLBA, the city needs to, at the bare minimum, hold them accountable to residents. There's an opportunity to shift the collective imagination and redesign how we, as a society, approach land investment and ownership. DLBA can correct historic gatekeeping and dispossession of land in Detroit. As it stands, DLBA fails as a tool of equity and access to land for the typical Detroiter, but it need not continue. Centering land and homeownership for Detroiters can serve to transform Detroit and similar cities into places that are driven and developed by the people that know that land best. It all starts with transforming legal mechanisms to promote sustainable access and equitable practices that center community members in driving the city forward.

Samantha Rudelich, B.S. University of Alabama, 2017, Georgetown University Law Center, 2023 J.D. Candidate, and former Co-President of the Detroit Legal Alliance.