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Foreclosures alter some suburbs’ nature

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Many in the black middle class moved out of Detroit and settled in the northern suburbs years ago. Because of foreclosures, it is now easy to buy or rent houses cheaply in these neighborhoods. The result has been a new, poorer wave of arrivals from the city, and growing tensions between residents and the newcomers. Above is a foreclosed house for sale in the Detroit suburb of Southfield.

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. » Three years ago, Lamar Grace left Detroit for the suburb of Southfield. He got a good deal: a 3,000-square-foot colonial that once was worth $220,000. In foreclosure he paid $109,000.

The neighbors were not pleased.

"They don’t want to live next door to ghetto folks," he says.

That his neighbors are black, like Grace, is immaterial. Many in the black middle class moved out of Detroit and settled in the northern suburbs years ago; now, due to foreclosures, it is easy to buy or rent houses on the cheap here. The result has been a new, poorer wave of arrivals from the city, and growing tensions between established residents and the newcomers.

"There’s a way in which they look down on people moving in from Detroit into houses they bought for much lower prices," says Grace, a 39-year-old telephone company analyst. "I understand you want to keep out the riffraff, but it’s not my fault you paid $250,000 and I paid a buck."

The neighbors say there is more to it than that. People like John Clanton, a retired auto worker, say the new arrivals have brought behavior more common in the inner city — increased trash, adults and children on the streets at all times of the night, a disregard for others’ property.

"During the summer months I sat in the garage, and at 3 o’clock in the morning you see them walking up and the down the streets on their cell phones talking," Clanton says.

"They pull up (in cars) in the middle of the street, and they’ll hold a conversation. You can’t get in your driveway. You blow the horn and they look back at you and keep on talking. That’s all Detroit."

The tensions have not gone unnoticed by local officials.

"I’ve got people of color who don’t want people of color to move into the city," says Southfield police Chief Joseph Thomas, who is himself black. "It’s not a black-white thing. This is a black-black thing. My six-figure blacks are very concerned about multiple-family, economically depressed people moving into rental homes and apartments, bringing in their bad behaviors."

Thomas has seen the desperation of the new arrivals. His officers, handling complaints, have found two or more families living in a single house, pooling their money for rent. They have "no food in the refrigerator and no furniture," Thomas says. "They can’t afford the food. They can’t afford the furniture." But they were eager to flee the gunfire of their old neighborhoods in Detroit.

The foreclosure crisis made it possible.

Many of the foreclosed-upon Southfield homes were going for $40,000 to $60,000. The median home value dropped from more than $190,000 to below $130,000 over the same period, according to Census Bureau figures.

With so many empty houses available, rents also dipped by hundreds of dollars. Renters increased from about 13,100 in 2006 to 15,400 in 2009.

The lure of low prices to Detroiters was obvious — as was the likelihood that their arrival would not be without issues.

"Blacks, like all Americans, want good schools and a safe community, and they can find that in the suburbs," says Richard Schragger, who teaches local government and urban law at the University of Virginia.

Sheryll Cashin, who teaches constitutional law and race and American law at Georgetown University, says it would be a shame if black flight from the city set off black flight from the near suburbs.

Some blacks just don’t want to live near other blacks, she says: "There is classism within the black community. The foreclosure crisis may be accelerating it."

Eugene Williams found a foreclosure steal in one of Southfield’s many kempt and stable neighborhoods. Williams, like Grace, wanted to get away from Detroit.

"The kids are running around without any control," says Williams, a 56-year-old auto plant worker. "They walk down the middle of the street and block traffic. There was gunfire at night. It was a common thing to hear gunfire."

But the transition to life in the suburbs hasn’t been easy. As he was making improvements indoors, Southfield ordinance officials were writing citations outside. He was fined $200 for noxious weeds because the grass was too high and dandelions covered much of the front lawn.

"It wouldn’t happen in Detroit," he says. "Your property is pretty much your property. I think, here, they are going a little overboard."


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