The year is 2014 and Detroit is in the midst of the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Approximately 33,000 households will have their water shut off by year-end, and nearly 9,000 occupied homes will be sold in a government tax-foreclosure auction. Michele Oberholtzer, a Michigan native, has recently returned to the area from New York and is volunteering to gather data on the affected homes. Following a map on her phone, she rides her bike between properties highlighted in red. So many homes have been foreclosed that the map is a pinkish blur.
Though her task is simply to collect information, Oberholtzer starts talking to people, and quickly discovers that the vast majority of residents at the properties listed have no idea they're at risk of losing the roof over their head. To better answer the series of questions that inevitably arise, she spends her nights researching the residents' options.
"I was just feeling so small," Oberholtzer recalls. "You would think like if there was ever an opportunity — yes these people have low incomes, but their houses are cheap and they already live in them. Like, shouldn't two plus two equal four?"
It was a trip to one property in particular that changed the trajectory of Oberholtzer's life. From afar, the building looked like a bank, but as Oberholtzer drew nearer, she could see that it was in fact a nonprofit. A sign in the window read, "Foreclosure Prevention."
"That realization just completely shed any convenient notion in my mind that someone else was handling this — like, the safety net is under attack," she says. "I just had this thing in my head at the time that just said 'radicalize'" — she whispers the word — "and it echoed several times and I really feel like a button got pushed, or a lever got pulled ... and it stayed."
Flash forward four years to June 2018 and Oberholtzer is in her Hamtramck dining room surrounded by a handful of people in blue shirts emblazoned with her name. In the time that's elapsed, she's helped thousands of people stave off homelessness as the city's tax foreclosure crisis grew to encompass at least one in every four properties. Now, Oberholtzer runs a nonprofit that raises money to help buy back the homes of families who've been foreclosed, and she works at the United Community Housing Coalition, a social services organization, as its tax-foreclosure prevention coordinator. But Oberholtzer is more than just a social servant — she's a squeaky wheel whose activism has helped spur the creation of new programs that help renters become homeowners and ensure people in poverty can hold on to the homes they own.
After four years of fighting foreclosure on the ground, Oberholtzer is elevating her mission with a run for state representative. Though she joins a national wave of first-time female candidates, Oberholtzer's foray into electoral politics is not motivated by Donald Trump's misogyny. Rather, she's driven by a will to dismantle the policies behind the crises that have gripped Detroit.
"Two issues I talk about a lot are water and housing," she tells a loyal cadre of blue-shirted volunteers. "We have all this land here and we're driving people out of their homes. We live in the center of the Great Lakes and yet we make water unaffordable. These are man-made policies and this is where we need a strong leader."
After the briefing, the volunteers split off, following maps on their phones to visit homes throughout Michigan's fourth state House district, which encompasses Detroit and Hamtramck. This canvassing effort, however, centers on a message of hope — that, with the right person in place, Detroit can close the curtain on a period of government-imposed austerity that's deprived its residents of basic human rights.
From our 2018 People Issue.
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