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Study links Detroit tax foreclosures, speculation, demolitions with lead poisoning

A home in Detroit.
Jodi Westrick
Michigan Radio
A home in Detroit.

Living in homes purchased at the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction, or near demolitions, increases the risk of lead poisoning in Detroit children.

Those findings are in a new, unpublished report from University of Michigan and Rutgers University researchers.

“The odds of exhibiting elevated blood lead concentrations are higher for children living in homes that were purchased in the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction,” researchers Joshua Akers, Alexa Eisenberg, and Eric Seymour write. “The highest risk is observed among children living in properties where the landlord owns 10 or more single family properties obtained through tax foreclosure sale. We also find a relationship between nearby demolitions and blood lead toxicity.”

Credit The Eviction Machine: Neighborhood Instability and Blight in Detroit's Neighborhoods, by Joshua Akers and Eric Seymour

Detroit has had more than 150,000 properties go through tax foreclosure since 2005. A prior report from Akers and Seymour found that 90% of auction purchases went to investors, and 70% of those went to medium or large-scale investors.

Co-author Alexa Eisenberg says children living in homes purchased at auction are about 1.6 times more likely to have elevated blood lead levels (EBLLs) than other children, even when controlling for other factors typically associated with lead poisoning such as the age of their home. The most common source of lead poisoning is flaking lead paint in older homes. Lead paint was banned in 1978.

“We see that the odds of exhibiting elevated blood lead levels are higher who live in homes that were purchased in the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction,” Eisenberg said. “Then we find that these risks are further elevated for children who live in properties that were purchased by investors in bulk.

“Holding the age of the property constant, we’re seeing these enormous odds emerge related to the investor variable, and they’re much larger than things we traditionally associate with lead exposure.”

Eisenberg says the link between nearby demolitions and elevated lead levels are somewhat less strong, but still statistically significant. Around 13% of children living near two or more demolitions had elevated blood lead levels, compared to less than 8% of those who didn’t.

The researchers used EBLL data from 2014-2017 to do their analysis. In 2017, 8.8% of Detroit children tested had EBLLs—more than 2.5 times the state level, and 4 times the national level.

Eisenberg says the study isn’t suggesting that tax foreclosure or real estate speculation cause lead poisoning, per se. Clearly, older housing stock in poor repair is the ultimate culprit. But the study “situates the increased risk of lead exposure within the cycle of foreclosure, speculation, eviction, and demolition.”

Eisenberg says that even within that framework, it’s difficult to say exactly why there appears to be such a strong link between homes that have been through tax foreclosure and sold at auction, and elevated blood lead levels.

But, “We think that speculators purchasing large numbers of foreclosed homes are going to be less likely than individuals and small landlords to maintain their acquisitions and undertake lead remediation actions,” Eisenberg said. “This is mostly based on the idea that if you’re buying homes in bulk, you’re not really motivated by the desire to improve individual properties, but more by your aggregate returns.”

There’s an alternate hypothesis: that buyers in the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction are getting the most dilapidated properties and lead-burdened properties the city has to offer.

Denise Fair, Detroit’s chief public health officer, said she hadn’t fully reviewed the study, but wasn’t surprised by the finding linking tax-foreclosed properties and lead exposure.

“Houses sold to those landlords in the Wayne County treasurer’s auction--these are the oldest, most dilapidated homes,” Fair said. “So of course, these homes have lead in them.”

But Fair and the city push back somewhat on the finding linking demolitions and EBLLs.

In 2017, the city’s health department did a preliminary analysis that found an apparent link between the two. But Fair says a more recent analysis, using 2018 data, showed “no association between demolitions and EBLLs.”

Fair says the city has strengthened health and safety protocols surrounding demolitions over the past two years, even putting a temporary moratorium on demolitions in zip codes with the highest EBLLs.

Fair says the city is also working hard to get every rental property in compliance with city code, which includes lead abatement measures. “We are holding these landlords accountable, and making sure they are in compliance with city codes,” she said.

But compliance with Detroit’s rental ordinance, which includes requirements that landlords obtain a certificate of compliance, has been shaky. A 2019 Detroit News analysis found that only about 10% of all rental properties citywide had legal clearance.

The authors of the study suggest that if the city wants to speed up enforcement with an eye toward reducing lead exposure, it should target tax-foreclosed properties, particularly those owned by large-scale speculators, for enforcement actions. It also suggests the city fully incorporate its own task force’s recommendations for demolition procedures, and put a moratorium on the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction—something the Wayne County Treasurer has repeatedly said would violate state law.

Eisenberg says at the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter exactly why there’s a link between tax foreclosure, speculation, and lead exposure—landlords should be held responsible for keeping their properties safe and habitable.

“We’re very confident in the relationship that we find. And we think that that relationship is indicative of the business models and practices of property speculators having these negative consequences for these tenants, and the children of their tenants,” Eisenberg said.

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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