Loveland’s Labor’s Lost: Detroit’s Dubious Civic Tech Champions

Like other for-profit civic technology companies, Loveland sits at an uncomfortable intersection of priorities. Since its inception, Loveland has struggled to reconcile what its founders think the city needs with what community organizers and residents want and need and what nonprofits, government agencies, and companies are willing to buy.

Even after the foreclosure notices began appearing on the door in late 2014, Jonathan Spikes’ landlord insisted on collecting $450 in rent every month—and Spikes continued to pay. It wasn’t until the furnace broke and Spikes asked for a replacement that the landlord said he didn’t own the house anymore so it wasn’t his problem.

Spikes’ home in Hamtramck, Michigan—a small city almost entirely encircled by the City of Detroit—was one of more than 8,000 occupied houses that went into the 2015 Wayne County tax foreclosure auction. The auction is an annual affair in which properties with three years of delinquent taxes are sold off online for a starting bid of $500. In theory it shifts tax-delinquent properties into the hands of tax-paying owners, but many houses are purchased by speculators or not bid on at all. These properties are often abandoned and set on the fast track to blight, as once-occupied homes are stripped, burned, or otherwise rendered unlivable. The auction forces thousands of residents, many of them blameless renters like Spikes or homeowners struggling under the burden of improperly assessed property taxes, out of their homes.

With help from the United Community Housing Coalition, an organization that proxy bids on houses for low-income Detroiters, Spikes tried to buy his house in the auction. He put a sign in his yard that read: “This is a home, please do not bid.” He lost to a small-time speculator who won the house for only $2,500, and bought five other properties on the same street, too. Seven months later, the new owner evicted Spikes, his girlfriend, and their infant son.

Tax foreclosure and the attendant problems of displacement and blight are among Detroit’s persistent problems—and a civic tech company called Loveland Technologies’ raison d’être. Founders Jerry Paffendorf, Mary Carter, and Larry Sheradon believe that if residents, city officials, nonprofits, and developers have access to better information on property ownership, occupancy, and structural conditions, that solutions to foreclosure and blight will follow.

Loveland’s work has attracted national media attention; Paffendorf has even appeared on the main stage of Personal Democracy Forum to talk about how Loveland is solving Detroit’s information crisis. But stories about how the company is “saving” Detroit and its residents—a narrative that Paffendorf says he rejects but has been propagated anyway—rely on a number of assumptions: that the root of Detroit’s problems is a lack of information; that data and technology are an essential part of the solution; and that the solution will be to the benefit of all Detroiters.

Like other for-profit civic technology companies, Loveland sits at an uncomfortable intersection of priorities. The company has to juggle its desire to help Detroiters, its strongly-held belief in making public data free and available to the public, the demands of government and nonprofit partners, and the need to make a profit. Since its inception, Loveland has struggled to reconcile what its founders think the city needs with what community organizers and residents want and need and what nonprofits, government agencies, and companies are willing to buy.

The Company

Paffendorf is an unlikely champion of downtrodden Detroiters. A serial entrepreneur, futurist, and internet creative, Paffendorf moved from Silicon Valley to Detroit in 2009 after being ousted from a company he had co-founded. The country was in a recession, and Detroit had been hit particularly hard. The tax foreclosure crisis was ramping up and the city was continuing to bleed residents. Paffendorf sensed opportunity. He liked the idea that moving to Detroit wasn’t what entrepreneurs did—at least not back then.

“I really can’t impress upon you firmly enough, or upon anybody else firmly enough, how horrifically devastated this city is and was,” Paffendorf told Civicist.

Paffendorf’s initial response to the city’s distress was to start an art project called Loveland. The premise was that for a mere dollar you could purchase a square inch of Detroit real estate to do with what you wish. In August 2009, Paffendorf raised more than $1,500 for the project in his first Kickstarter campaign, and before the project petered out ran fifteen more crowdfunding campaigns. The project was meant to be provocative and whimsical, but it treated land in a city devastated by tax and mortgage foreclosure like a game or money-making gimmick, like those businesses that sell naming rights to stars, or a 1955 Quaker Oats promotion that invited consumers to mail in box tops in exchange for a deed for a square inch of land “in the Yukon gold rush country.”

But Loveland had enthusiastic supporters, who embraced its symbolic and artistic intent. “The point of Loveland is to start somewhere, together, to connect with people, amplify the awesome and see where it goes,” Paffendorf’s friend Rita King wrote on BoingBoing after becoming Loveland’s first “inchvestor.”

Paffendorf continued to dabble in the arts, founding a nonprofit called Imagination Station in a house purchased in the annual tax foreclosure auction and helping to raise the money to bring a gigantic Robocop statue to Detroit—a project that kicked off a debate about privilege, oppression, and gentrification in Detroit and still hasn’t materialized.

The next significant chapter for Loveland was a part-map, part-social-network called Why Don’t We Own This? Paffendorf and his co-founders launched the project in 2011 to share hard-to-access public information about the properties for sale in the Wayne County tax foreclosure auction and to “demystify” the auction process. Reporting on the “rock-bottom real estate creat[ing] opportunity in Detroit” for Techonomy in 2013, Adam Ludwig described the website as “an information-rich online map of auction property” for “prospective buyers.”

“The idea behind the site is to encourage innovators to buy and renovate inexpensive properties to use for creative or entrepreneurial endeavors,” Ludwig wrote. Paffendorf said the project was for “encouraging activation over speculation,” but many Detroiters thought the website sold the city to outsiders.

A look at some of the houses at risk of tax foreclosure in 2017.

Loveland has since dropped the name Why Don’t We Own This? and is in the process of consolidating all of its data, maps, and tools under one brand, Loveland. In the past few years its mission has ballooned into a massive open data project: putting the country online parcel by parcel. The company has mapped more than 130 million parcels in the United States. The breadth of information on each parcel varies. At one end of the spectrum, a parcel is identified only by the address and parcel ID. Some will include information on acreage, ownership, and fire, tax, or school districts. In Detroit, parcel information also includes tax status, taxes due, last sale price, assessed value, and more. Anyone can search the map if they sign up for a free account, but use of the surveying tool is by subscription only.

In January, Loveland announced that the company is opening the site up to “anyone with a spreadsheet who wants to give it a name and a description and share it with the world.” They want to become the Wikipedia of parcel data.

In addition to opening data and building software, Loveland partners with governments, nonprofits, and developers on specific projects. The first big project, in 2013, was a city-wide survey of blight in Detroit called Motor City Mapping, which was commissioned by the Blight Task Force, a nongovernmental body convened by the Obama administration. Loveland has also been a recipient of some of the $100 million JPMorgan Chase committed to spend on “revitalizing” Detroit. (JPMorgan Chase has even sponsored a Slate podcast about how, with Loveland, they are “healing” Detroit’s neighborhoods.) More recently, a Ohio nonprofit used $1 million from JPMorgan Chase to hire Loveland to build property dashboards for Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati to help those cities address blight.

The company built a new tax foreclosure website for the Wayne County Treasurer, and last June, Loveland surveyed more than 8,000 occupied homes slated for foreclosure on behalf of the Treasurer and the United Community Housing Coalition. Loveland has also received grants or modest investments from individuals and foundations like the Skillman and Kresge foundations, and from Bizdom, a startup incubator founded by one of Detroit’s wealthiest residents, the billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert.

The Problem

At Personal Democracy Forum in 2014, Paffendorf framed the problem as one in which Detroit, like many other cities, was the victim of an outdated information system. “All the information in the city was essentially trapped in a 1960s, 1970s, whatever old time-y, filing-cabinet paradigm,” he said. “I know a lot of cities are kind of in this situation as well, but you add Detroit’s situation to that—where you’ve got massive population loss, you’ve got declining city revenues, lack of services, and you’ve got a disaster that unfortunately really hard-working, really passionate people are trying to solve without the adequate information tools to do it.”

“Underlying every other crisis that the city faces—it’s got a fiscal crisis, social and racial and equality crises—information crisis underlies all,” Paffendorf told the Detroit Free Press’s John Gallagher in 2015. “The reason that a lot of those other symptoms express themselves is that nobody knows what’s going on.”

But not everyone agrees with this, including Joshua Akers, a geographer and an activist with the group Detroit Eviction Defense. “We’ve got 100 years of information,” Akers said. “What we have is a lack of political will to actually deal with these issues.”

The United Community Housing Coalition (UCHC) has been working to prevent Detroiters from losing their homes to tax foreclosure since 2003. The organization contacts homeowners or the residents of houses at risk of foreclosure through targeted mailings and door-to-door visits to encourage them to see someone at UCHC about options to save their home. In 2009, the year before the auction went online, they began proxy bidding for clients. Since then, they have purchased roughly 1,700 homes at auction. Many of their clients are renters like Spikes. UCHC helps them save money and provides small, zero-interest loans if needed. Although they weren’t able to save the house Spikes was renting from the auction in 2015, UCHC was able to purchase an unoccupied home for him last fall. Although it needs a lot of work, Spikes says he hopes to move in this spring or summer.

Jonathan Spikes in front of the unoccupied home UCHC helped him purchase in the 2016 tax foreclosure auction.

Michele Oberholtzer is UCHC’s lead on tax foreclosure and the founder of The Tricycle Collective, an organization that raises money to help families with young children purchase their home in the auction. She began organizing around tax foreclosure after working as a Loveland surveyor: visiting properties, taking pictures, and filling out a questionnaire about occupancy and blight identifiers, like fire damage and dumping. As a surveyor, Oberholtzer was bombarded with questions by the people whose homes she was documenting. Often the residents, especially if they were renters, had no idea that their house was in foreclosure.

This is Detroit’s information problem: Renters don’t know to stop paying rent to their landlord, or that if they save up they might be able to purchase their house in the auction. Other aspiring homeowners enter into predatory (or even fraudulent) land contracts, unaware that they could purchase a home for a tiny fraction of the cost through the tax foreclosure auction.

The Solution

Loveland’s solution to Detroit’s information crisis is flawed because access to Loveland’s data and tools is unequal. Approximately 40 percent of Detroit residents live without a home broadband connection. Although many lower-income residents primarily access online services through mobile devices, Loveland has not been optimized for mobile, and is difficult to use on the phone. Oberholtzer says the site is too challenging for most of her clients to learn to use, even if they know about it. (Spikes, for one, said he had never even heard of it.)

Loveland’s focus since first launching Why Don’t We Own This? has been as much about informing outsiders and government officials about foreclosure and blight in Detroit as it has been about educating Detroiters.

“It was pretty much unilateral or one-sided, where we were collecting data [but] we weren’t necessarily distributing it,” Oberholtzer said of her time working as a Loveland surveyor.

Fairly distributing information about tax foreclosure and the auction requires targeted mailings and door-to-door visits, things groups like UCHC have done for years but Loveland only recently participated in as part of a project they were hired to carry out by the Wayne County Treasurer and UCHC. In addition to asking residents a series of questions, Loveland surveyors handed out information packets from UCHC about payment plans to help owners avoid foreclosure, and about opportunities for purchasing homes at auction. Of the residents contacted, 38 percent or 677 people said that they were not aware that their property was in foreclosure. For at least this one project, Loveland and sponsors of the survey know to what extent the Detroit residents facing foreclosure were informed by their work.

If only it were that easy to quantify the impact—good or bad—that Loveland’s maps and surveying tools have had on Detroit residents over the years. When asked how they judge their impact in the communities they work in, Loveland’s community engagement coordinator Tiffany Vantino said, “That’s an interesting question. I mean, I mean—it’s hard to say from a large scale.”

She said she mostly relies on anecdotes from people she meets. “There’s just been a ton of like, personal stories that have been really uplifting and [that] makes you feel good,” Vantino said.

Loveland’s (now former) business development and growth manager Paula Gonzalez said, “I guess measuring impact is always a tough, challenging thing to do.”

“I think we’ve been head down pursuing these really, really giant problems for a long time and we’re always— We’ve been like jumping from project to project, working with Flint, working to try to map Flint since the lead pipe crisis hit the news and everything, so that’s been an ongoing project. I think it’s just been like—.” She trailed off before concluding, “I don’t know how to answer the question.”

“Loveland made it really obvious what was in property tax foreclosure in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit,” said Garlin Gilchrist, Detroit’s deputy technology director of civic community engagement. “It’s hard for me to draw a direct line from that to say that ‘oh, because of that…there are less homes in foreclosure because of that.’ I haven’t tried to answer that question; my suspicion is it’s a very difficult question to answer rigorously.”

The challenge of measuring impact is not unique to Loveland alone. Many observers and participants in the civic tech space, like GovLab co-founder Stefaan Verhulst, have identified this problem and are beginning to call more insistently for “evidence-based” solutions instead of “faith-based” ones.

The Beneficiaries

As a technology company, Loveland is not always in control of how their tools are used. In an article jointly published last week by CityLab and Civicist, I showed how speculators and opportunists are better positioned to benefit from Loveland’s kind of transparency than the low-income, primarily black Detroiters hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis. Even in its day-to-day operations, Loveland is in many ways a pay-to-play service. Loveland employees, for example, said that they update the site on an “ad hoc” basis, often because of customer requests.

“We have specific customers who ask us to update things or they say ‘Hey, we’re going to go out and survey next week, can you update our file before then?’ And we’re pretty responsive with that,” Gonzalez said. That seems fairly innocuous, but it means that as a freemium service, users who can’t afford to purchase a subscription are more likely to see outdated information in the areas that interest them.

In addition to the concerns addressed in my previous piece, local housing activists also voiced skepticism about how Loveland has been used to combat foreclosure’s sister problem: blight.

An abandoned and blighted home in Detroit. (Jessica McKenzie)

In 2013, at the urging of the Quicken Loans billionaire Dan Gilbert, the Obama administration convened a task force to combat blight in Detroit. With $1.5 million from the Kresge Foundation, Skillman Foundation, Michigan State Housing and Development Authority, and Gilbert’s company Rock Ventures, the Blight Task Force hired Loveland Technologies and an organization called Data Driven Detroit to lead a city-wide survey of Detroit properties, both residential and commercial, 380,000 parcels in all.

Loveland developed a smartphone app to assess properties; Data Driven Detroit, which had led a survey of Detroit’s residential properties in 2009 using paper forms, provided quality control. The results were used in the lengthy Blight Task Force report, which recommended spending 850 million on residential blight removal alone, and were published online as an interactive map.

Most of the media coverage of the Blight Task Force’s report and Loveland’s contributions assumed the inquiry itself was benevolent; when blight is most often described as a cancer, plague, or other disease upon the city, it seems natural to want to eradicate it. However, as Alex Halperin reported in a 2015 Mother Jones article, the Obama administration assembled the $300 million aid package—half of it slated for blight removal—on Gilbert’s recommendation, a man who owns more than 60 commercial properties in downtown Detroit and is poised to reap enormous profits if property values in Detroit soar because of blight removal. Gilbert was then appointed co-chair of the task force, in a position to oversee all of its recommendations.

Halperin wrote that there are no minutes from the White House meeting that set the task force in motion, but that it “appears that not a single representative of the neighborhoods soon to be bulldozed—no minister, no community organizer, no teacher or city council member—attended the meeting.”

“This is the fundamental dynamic that has played out throughout Detroit’s crisis and recovery,” Halperin added. “The city’s future is being determined by politicians, business leaders, and philanthropists while native Detroiters—more than 80 percent of whom are black—often can only watch from afar.” Through their work with the Blight Task Force, Loveland has supported this trend.

Motor City Mapping gave the Blight Task Force report data-driven justification. Although Loveland and other partners boasted about hiring Detroit residents to do the actual surveying, residents had no meaningful input into the substance of the task force’s inquiry.

The report gave lip service to issues like reforming tax foreclosure and providing meaningful assistance to Detroiters experiencing financial hardship and facing eviction, but its biggest concern was funding the Blight Task Force’s vision of eradicating blight. The Task Force estimated the cost of eliminating neighborhood blight at $850 million, with most of the money going towards demolitions.

A house slated for demolition. (Jessica McKenzie)

To prioritize eradicating blight over keeping people in their houses is to address only the symptom of the crisis, not the root cause. The activist group Moratorium Now, whose goals include ending foreclosures, evictions, and utility shutoffs in Detroit, would rather see funds for demolitions used to help keep people from losing their homes to tax and mortgage foreclosure in the first place, which is how the Hardest Hit Funds were originally meant to be used before a portion was appropriated for blight removal.

Oberholtzer also laments the reallocation of federal dollars on blight removal. She believes that it comes from an unwillingness to help people who are perceived to be at fault for letting their house fall into foreclosure. “People are complicated, the situations are messy and it’s really hard—if you’re going to be doing the red tape bureaucratic approach, you’re going to have a hard time distributing money to people,” she said. “It’s much easier once it’s too far gone to just demolish it and you don’t have to worry about people.”

Meanwhile the Detroit Land Bank, the organization entrusted to act on the Blight Task Force’s recommendations and the information supplied by Motor City Mapping, is being investigated for waste and fraud in its blight removal program.

The Responsibility

“Even if we’re not the ones specifically saving the homes or interacting with those residents, everyone’s using our data,” Loveland co-founder and COO Mary Carter said when we met in October at Loveland’s office in downtown Detroit.

After our initial meeting, Paffendorf and I spoke at length a second time by phone. When asked how Loveland juggles the demands of different stakeholders—government, nonprofits, customers, Detroit residents—Paffendorf said, “One of our rules is making public information freely available to the public.”

I asked about the potential unintentional consequences of opening data. “Imagine the alternative,” he replied. “No information available to anyone? Is that what a critic would want?” Although he presents the issue as an all-or-nothing dichotomy, how to fairly balance security, privacy, and transparency is something the open data movement as a whole has yet to solve.

I asked about concerns that Loveland further disempowers the already marginalized in Detroit because they are unable to find, access, use, or act on the information Loveland provides for one reason or another—concerns I had heard firsthand, and that had also been recently addressed in an article by Shilpa Jindia. “I massively take issue with that,” Paffendorf said. He added that they “go out of [their] way” to go to community meetings, and that community organizers are always welcome to reach out if they need help.

Paffendorf concedes that opening data and building new tools isn’t enough to solve Detroit’s problems, but that Loveland’s work can fuel solutions. “Obviously we can’t do everything,” he said.

“I honestly think the only negative things you could say about our work are things that we’re aware of and try to fix,” said Paffendorf.

“Not that it’s necessarily important here, but it’s interesting to note the short-term local damage we’ve done to our company by continuing to show things like foreclosure, fire, and blight in the neighborhoods,” Paffendorf wrote on Facebook last week, responding to my piece for CityLab and Civicist. When we met last year he called this a hazard of working in the civic tech space.

Loveland wants to be both politically neutral—its only allegiance to freely and easily accessible information—and a force for good in Detroit. It relies on the assumption that even if speculators and real estate companies are using their information and tools, that the benefit of opening data for individuals, nonprofits, and community organizations will outweigh potential harms, but the company lacks proof one way or the other.

“‘Does Loveland save Detroit’ is, I feel like, a very unfair entrance, if that’s how it’s set up,” Paffendorf said. Of course Paffendorf and his co-founders believe that what they are doing benefits Detroit, but Paffendorf doesn’t think that the company should be judged a failure because foreclosure in Detroit hasn’t been definitively “solved.”

Fair enough. Where then has this expectation that Loveland should be saving Detroit come from?

In part, it comes from their own identity. The last sentence of the company’s description is, “In Detroit our community missions include arming people with information to battle a plague of tax foreclosures and running an ongoing survey of property conditions to help fight blight.” If they aren’t claiming to save Detroit, they are at least claiming to fight for it.

In part it has come from the enthusiastic media coverage of their work—which has been everywhere from The New York Times, NPR, and Forbes to Next City, PBS, and even techPresident—in which Loveland is often framed, whether they like it or not, as some kind of savior, or at the very least a change-maker.

This is a risk in the civic tech field—that some initiatives will get more attention simply because they use shiny new tech, while the issue of their actual civic value goes unaddressed. The case of Loveland gets at who can claim the mantle of “civic tech” and what the public can expect or demand from them.

“I think that people can mistakenly assume that a technological tool can create community change on its own, as a quick fix,” explains Kathryn Pettit, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute and the author of two books on the role of data in community change, although she adds that she doesn’t think Paffendorf, whom she has conversed with on several occasions, believes that. Pettit observes that all technology startups are in the position of marketing their work as impactful, but that it still depends on how and where the tools are used.

“If you go into a city without the civic infrastructure you can have all the data and the fanciest, well-designed tool you want and it doesn’t matter,” she said. “A website does not democratize data in itself, particularly if you’re concerned like we are about neighborhoods that have traditionally been closed out from information or data, and certainly not been exposed to the skills to use it. I get worried about overselling these platforms.”

This piece has been supported by the journalism nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project.