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Seven Stories Press

Works of Radical Imagination

Book cover for We Live Here
Book cover for We Live Here

We Live Here is a graphic biography of Detroit Eviction Defense, a local activist group that helps to combat — and beat — corporate attempts to evict longtime residents of Detroit.

Compiled here by Jeff Wilson and Bambi Kramer, these are stories of families struggling against evictions, offering a unique view of the complexities at work in the city. These are everyday people fighting back, organizing with others, going into the streets, and winning their homes back.

What will Detroit look like in the future? Today cheap property entices real estate speculators from around the world. Artists arrive from all over viewing the city as a creative playground. Billionaires are re-sculpting downtown as a spot for tourism. But beyond the conventional players in urban growth and development, Detroit Eviction Defense (DED) members — like others engaged in place-based struggles all over the country — are pushing back, saying in effect, “we live here, we’ve been here, there is no Detroit without us.”

Book cover for We Live Here
Book cover for We Live Here

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“Wilson follows up The Instinct for Cooperation (an illustrated dialogue with Noam Chomsky) by partnering with co-artist Kramer for this galvanizing chronicle of hardscrabble victories won by a grassroots coalition dedicated to rescuing Detroit families from home foreclosure and eviction. In most of the firsthand accounts, success for the Detroit Eviction Defense hinges on preventing the delivery of a dumpster, which signals the final step in an eviction. “If that happens, they’ll remove you physically from the house,” says an organizer at a meeting with a family threatened with eviction. While battling evictions in courtrooms and bank cubicles, the DED’s most potent tactics include picket lines and crowding properties with parked cars to block dumpster deliveries. These efforts may take months, and depend on extensive volunteer commitment. In capturing the powerlessness felt by individuals pitted against unresponsive mortgage lenders, the portraits lay bare the racial disparities baked into Detroit’s much-celebrated revitalization. But as DED efforts repeatedly force banks to the negotiating table, the accounts also serve as testaments to organized action and strength in numbers. Kramer’s lightly stylized sketches lend each firsthand narrative a verisimilitude shaded with pathos and dignity. Personalizing the lingering aftereffects of the subprime mortgage crisis, this collection of resilient first-person testimonies is comics journalism at its most vital.

“Jeffrey Wilson and Bambi Kramer’s We Live Here is a triumph of comic art and grassroots ethnography, taking the raw and powerful testimonies of Detroit residents in the crosshairs of racial capitalism’s predatory dispossession, and showing how street-level solidarity and neighborhood direct action kept people in their homes and built a movement. The panels of this book capture, with the utmost care and clear revolutionary love, the moments in which personal despair facing down foreclosure and eviction was transmuted, through organizing, into the power of community refusal. A visual and intellectual gift to anyone who wants to understand where and how truly radical responses to an unjust world are built.”

“What makes this book remarkable is the intimately drawn true stories of ordinary people coming together to fight nefarious systems and demonstrate the possibility of winning against seemingly impossible odds. More than ever we need to believe it is possible to surmount the destructive forces that are ruining our health, our neighborhoods, our planet. Jeff Wilson and Bambi Kramer's We Live Here! demonstrates the power of the comics to do just that.”

“What a superb book of comics journalism on place-based solidarity in resisting eviction in neoliberal Detroit! A non-extractivist, publicly accessible and engaged account of the accumulative dispossessions assaulting Black and Latinx home-owners, and of racial capitalism in action. The texts and images draw us into the solidarity that enables non-white, working class resistance, deftly illustrating the nuances and complexities of the evictions, the politicization of the grass roots, their resistance as survivability, and the fight back itself.”

“An intimate, thought-provoking portrayal of a housing justice movement, Jeffrey Wilson and Bambi Kramer bring readers behind the scenes of Detroit’s foreclosure crisis, illustrating not only how financial institutions and speculators prey on Black and Brown communities but how organized communities can succeed in fighting back. Through deft narration and arresting illustration, Where We Live celebrates place-based solidarity, illuminating its essential ingredients: love, compassion, defense, refusal, education, mutual aid, and stories. Stories of housing justice, they argue, must not only be seen and heard but also shared. This must-read handbook for housing activism does just that. Comic book meets critical urban studies, it sets an exciting new precedent for visual scholarship that is at once thorough and accessible. An achievement and inspiration.”

“In this beautifully illustrated graphic novel, Jeffrey Wilson and Bambi Kramer tell the important story of community-led resistance to predatory foreclosure in Detroit. Highlighting the collective work of Detroit Eviction Defense as well as personal stories of residents who fought against their dispossession, this novel humanizes the violence of displacement but also the crucial networks of care, mutual aid, and emplacement that goes into protecting one’s home and neighborhood. Produced from a place of solidarity and in collaboration with those whose stories are featured, this strikingly original work is both educational and commemorative all at once. Paying homage to those who showed up day after day to prevent eviction, it brings readers into the intimate spaces of community organizing while also offering incisive structural analysis of racial capitalism, housing financialization, and gentrification.”

blog — April 30

Solidarity and Home Defense: The Case of Detroit

 

To mark the publication of We Live Here, a graphic biography of Detroit Eviction Defense written by Jeffrey Wilson and illustrated by Bambi Kramer, we are proud to share Wilson’s introductory note, in which he offers a history of housing in Detroit and the specific methods that banks, corporations, and collections agencies work to evict or otherwise displace longterm residents.


SOLIDARITY AND HOME DEFENSE
THE CASE OF DETROIT

By Jeffrey Wilson

This comic centers on the fourth anniversary celebration of Detroit Eviction Defense (DED). During the festivities, members recounted their stories fighting housing dispossession. In doing so, they offer a model of place-based struggle that has won some eighty homes back from the brink of eviction. Emerging out of the Occupy Movement of 2011, DED is a grassroots coalition of homeowners, anarchists, faith-based activists, union members, and community advocates. To understand DED’s strategies, it is helpful to have a clear picture of the city’s housing history and modes of eviction. 

DISPOSSESSION BY THE NUMBERS 

Housing displacement in Detroit typically takes two forms: mortgage and/or tax foreclosure. A mortgage foreclosure happens when a financial institution takes possession of a property for nonpayment and is the central focus of this book. Tax foreclosure, detailed in the appendix, is when the local municipality takes possession of a property for three consecutive years of nonpayment and subsequently auctions the house, more often than not to real estate speculators. 

Between 2005–2013 Detroit recorded nearly 70,000 mortgage foreclosures impacting approximately 30 percent of residential properties (Akers & Seymour, 2019). One activist describes these mortgage foreclosures and the subsequent fallout as a “hurricane without water” (Interview, 2016). The sentiment seems correct and the problem grows significantly when taking mortgage and tax foreclosures together. Between 2005 and 2015, 1 in 3 properties in the city faced either a mortgage or tax foreclosure (Kurth, 2015). Approximately 160,000 foreclosures were executed, impacting 120,000 homes or 48 percent of all residential properties. Of these homes, 27,000 experienced a kind of double dispossession of a mortgage foreclosure and then a tax foreclosure (Akers & Seymour, 2019).

While mortgage foreclosures have devastated individual families, some of these properties also cost the city millions. As the Detroit News reported, nearly 56 percent of these mortgage-foreclosed homes were in some state of disrepair as of 2015, with nearly 13,000 slated for demolition, costing Detroit $200 million (Kurth, 2015). 

Mortgage foreclosures in Detroit are not isolated, but are built upon a frenzy of subprime lending. In the four years leading up to the housing market crash of 2008, nearly $4 billion in predatory loans was injected into the city’s housing market. Such lending practices are a contemporary iteration of what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has termed “predatory inclusion.” The fair housing era facilitated more robust access to the housing market for many African Americans. Yet this was not the end of discrimination or segregation. Black people continued to pay exorbitant rates and face unequal terms for housing that was often of substandard quality, as Taylor comments. This inclusion was another way that “Black bodies become vessels through which racial capital extracts value” (Denvir, 2020). Detroit before the 2008 market crash is a reminder of the impacts of predatory inclusion. While subprime lending averaged 24 percent of the national market, a kind of predatory inclusion drove rates in Detroit to an average 68 percent in 2005. In some targeted neighborhoods this number rose to 80 percent of all mortgages (Kurth & MacDonald, 2015). 

While the pre-2008 mortgage regime produced inclusionary practices, the post housing market crash strengthened exclusionary practices. A Bridge Michigan analysis of mortgages found that in 2007 African Americans received 75 percent of mortgage loans in Detroit but by 2017 this decreased to 48 percent, despite the fact that Black people make up nearly 80 percent of the city's population. White people comprised only 10 percent of Detroit’s population but received 17 percent of loans in 2007 and 58 percent in 2017. Several Detroit neighborhoods, which had once generated 600 mortgages in 2007, produced zero in 2017 (Wilkinson, 2019). Homes are still being purchased in Detroit, but for many residents nontraditional and much riskier arrangements such as land contracts or rent-to-own are the only avenues for homeownership. Housing advocates estimate that 1 in 10 evictions result from land contracts, yet these numbers might be much higher as such agreements are not required to be registered by the city (Einhorn & Mondry, 2021).

The waning of mortgage foreclosures by the mid-2010s was followed by a series of catastrophic tax foreclosures. Approximately 100,000 tax foreclosures were triggered in the city between 2011 and 2015 (Atuahene, 2020). The peak was 24,793 foreclosures occurring in 2015 (Aguilar, 2020). In tax foreclosure, homes that are behind three years are then sent to tax auction. These auctions have moved online since 2015, facilitating speculators from around the world in buying properties in Detroit, as the appendix of this book outlines. 

Tax foreclosure as dispossession is only part of the story. Wayne County now leverages Detroit’s tax debt to make a profit. The City of Detroit is paid annually for an individual’s delinquent taxes by Wayne County. Essentially this makes it so that Detroit does not have unpaid taxes on the ledger. In order to lend Detroit this money, the county borrows annually from individual investors or banks. To pay off these loans Wayne County then collects unpaid property taxes from delinquent Detroit homeowners, charging them an additional 4 percent interest rate or higher. As Bridge Magazine notes, “profit [for the county] comes from borrowing at 5 percent or less and getting up to 22-percent return on delinquent taxes, creating the surplus controlled by the county treasurer.” Key to this is that the largely white suburbs get to control the surplus generated from Black residents of Detroit. The article continues by noting, “in 2004, Wayne County began to collect Detroit’s delinquent taxes, doubling the county’s surplus of fees and interest from delinquent taxes to an average of $33 million from $15 million per year” (Kurth et al., 2017). 

As a consequence, Detroit, once a city known as a center of Black homeownership, has shifted from a city in which homeowners were the majority to a city in which renters are the majority. The housing stock now has 124,000 owned units and 140,000 rentals (Ruggiero et al., 2020). Coupled with the pandemic, this shift has placed struggles against housing dispossession on different footing. At the forefront now are tenant rights. 

WE LIVE HERE: DETROIT EVICTION DEFENSE 

This book is a celebration of place-based struggle against the forces of dispossession outlined above. Recounted are stories by Detroiters, primarily Black women, who fought and organized to save their homes from a mortgage foreclosure. Together with local activist group DED, these women answer the question “what will Detroit look like in the future?” by asserting that “there is no Detroit without us!” Told in eight chapters, families who have lived in the city for generations detail their deeply personal stories of falling behind on mortgage payments, going through the eviction process, and fighting to keep their homes. In doing so, these stories work against the unexamined assumption that foreclosures are caused by individual irresponsibility. As each family discusses their particular situation, this idea is upended and we can discern that it is not individual fault but rather the contours of racial capitalism that usurp Black and Latinx wealth. While each story has its own particular points of emphasis, the heart of this book is about transformation, resistance, and solidarity in the face of housing loss. 

These stories contradict a popular image of the city as a kind of blank canvas. A canvas to be painted as a collection of cheap properties that entice real estate speculators from around the world, as a creative playground for artists or a landscape for billionaires to resculpt downtown, and as a spot for suburban tourists. Tying these activities together is a view of the city as a functionally empty frontier in need of resettlement. Yet beyond these conventional players in urban growth and development are groups like DED that expand our ability to imagine possible resistances to the future of housing implicit in these exploitative visions. 

Central to DED’s work are direct action tactics to keep Detroiters in their homes. This ranges from physically stopping bailiffs from entering and evicting families to strategies such as packing the courtroom with DED members during eviction hearings. These tactics emerge from DED’s broader organizing, in which homeowners build support in their neighborhoods to mount a defense against eviction. Those facing an impending eviction are urged by DED to go to family, friends, and neighbors to let them know their situation in order to build support for a home defense. 

These acts are not insignificant. People facing eviction often feel ashamed and these moments of community building around dinner tables or in church halls creates the solidarity that is necessary to save a home. 

Jeffrey Wilson

JEFFREY WILSON is a graphic novel author and Ph.D. Candidate in Geography at the University of Arizona. His work focuses on the social determinants of health, specifically the effect of foreclosures on health in Detroit, Michigan. He received a Master's in Anthropology from Columbia University where his work explored the ways ethnography could be written in graphic novel form. He has published one of the first graphic novel interviews to appear in a peer-reviewed journal. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Photo of Bambi Kramer by Laszlo Bindi

BAMBI KRAMER is a comics author and illustrator based in Rome, Italy. She has participated in festivals, events and exhibitions around the world, her work has been exhibited in Rome, Cape Town and Madrid, and her illustrations and comics have been published by international magazines.