When the time came, Nfr Esters headed down to the nearby Burger King to use the public Wi-Fi. It wasn’t to check email — she was anxious to get the results of Wayne County’s annual tax foreclosure auction and see if she’d soon be looking for a new place to live.
Esters’ house on Detroit’s east side was among the thousands for sale in 2014 — a status it had earned after vandals stripped it of its plumbing, leading to a runaway water bill that she simply couldn’t pay. That left just one option: to try to buy back her home. Luckily, her bid of $600 was enough to save the house that had been in her family for five generations.
It’s likely Esters’ story would have turned out differently had she not crossed paths the month before with Michele Oberholtzer. At the time, Oberholtzer had been working as a property surveyor for Loveland Technologies, collecting data on all the homes facing tax foreclosure. But in the process, she had a heartbreaking realization: Many of the houses, as indicated by the tricycles and toys on the front lawns, still had families living in them.
“I was interacting with people who lived there, and who were imminently at risk of losing their homes,” Oberholtzer says. “And they were asking me questions about how to save them, but they were questions I just didn’t have the answers to.”
Oberholtzer began researching the tax foreclosure process. She learned how, every year, the county offered thousands of properties for sale in an online auction, often with starting bids of just $500. At that time, homeowners could actually bid on their own properties, which would potentially allow families to recover their homes for only a few hundred dollars. So with just a few weeks to go until the big foreclosure sale, Oberholtzer organized a crowdfunding campaign that enabled 11 families to participate in the auction. Among them was Nfr Esters.
Inspired by that success, Oberholtzer founded the nonprofit Tricycle Collective to help more families avoid tax foreclosure, often using the same tactics that helped Esters (who is now an active Collective member). Since its founding in 2014, the group has raised more than $50,000 and assisted more than a hundred Detroit families. Their efforts have also brought renewed visibility to a crisis Oberholtzer says still impacts thousands of Detroit households every year.
“Helping people stay where they are has such a huge impact,” she says. “That’s why reducing just a little bit of that scattering and tossing and bruising that happens when a family loses their home is so important. And in this crazy system that we have, it doesn’t take more than a few hundred dollars to change someone’s life.”
Read more about the Tricycle Collective’s work or make a donation at thetricyclecollective.com.