Abate and switch

Dec 28, 2005 at 12:00 am

Last summer, a cleanup crew hired by the East Jefferson Business Association was pulling weeds in front of the old Vanity Ballroom on Jefferson Avenue and Newport Street in Detroit, even though the owner of the vacant building hadn’t paid association fees for more than five years. A chunk of mortar fell from the facade and almost struck a worker on the head. There was no question who owned the building — even if Leroy Burgess hadn’t plastered campaign posters from his failed City Council bid all over the building’s front, his wife’s name still appeared on the city’s property records. The main problem for the association was the same one plaguing many Detroiters — how to get owners of decrepit property to actually maintain what they own.

Over the past year, Wayne County has begun addressing this problem by using a revamped program that relies on the threat of seizure to bring problem property owners into compliance. Of the approximately 1,000 landlords the county filed lawsuits against this year, about 80 percent either renovated, demolished or sold their properties, says Robert Gazall, director of the nuisance abatement program. Only when owners refuse to comply does the county resort to seizure. “Our goal is not to take the property,” Gazall says. “Our goal is to renovate the property.”

Ultimately, though, if owners don’t comply, they’ll lose their property.

So far, Gazall says, the program is working.

“We’re taking small steps toward large change,” he says.

Those small steps come in the form of a document about four pages long delivered to negligent property owners targeted by the county. If the owners want to avoid court and possible property seizure, it’s an agreement they must sign, one that requires them to renovate, sell or demolish their property by a set date. If that deadline isn’t met, the property is seized by the county and offered for sale with proceeds going back into the program. The nuisance abatement program started in 1999 under the direction of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, mainly handling houses taken in drug busts. It was moved to the county executive office in October 2004 and given the power to target the neglected properties themselves.

“There’s no shortage of work for this office,” Gazall says.

Chris Garland, a program director at the Jefferson East Business Association, is the one who submitted complaints to the county about the Vanity and 13 other properties along the same stretch of Jefferson. The business association had tried using fiscal carrots to goad the buildings’ owners to make improvements, offering to help them win tax credits and facade improvement grants from government agencies.

That got them nowhere.

And there wasn’t much hope that the city would be of much help in addressing the problem. Until early this year, complaints regarding places like the Vanity went through either the Detroit Environmental Affairs or Building and Safety Engineering departments, which have long been overwhelmed by the volume of problem structures in the city. And the Department of Administrative Hearings, created in January to act as a blight court in an attempt to pick up the pace of action, still depends on imposing fines to deal with problem owners.

But the county’s been finding that threat of seizure is a much more effective approach. Burgess is just one example – he agreed to perform the needed renovations within weeks of being sued. He has until early next year to perform the required work.

“One thing that makes the Wayne County group exciting is that they use a lawsuit,” Garland says. “It makes the process more expedient. It’s not about citations, warrants and tickets. It says that property owners face the prospect of having their property taken away from them.”

Working with neighborhood and business associations like Garland’s, the program targets dilapidated buildings in the midst of otherwise thriving neighborhoods. Two full-time lawyers litigate cases for the program, backed up by two administrative attorneys and one full-time investigator. The group uses a set of criteria to determine its targets, including whether the property is actually vacant. Even if the property is blighted, Gazall says, the county won’t evict tenants. Still, the results are encouraging. “For every 10 lawsuits we file, five owners say they want to work with us” to renovate their property, Gazall says. “Four will complete the renovations, one probably won’t.”

The noncompliant properties quickly pass from the courtroom to the Internet. Under the agreement signed by the owner, if problems aren’t corrected the county has authority to seize the properties and put them up for auction on its Web site, www.waynecounty.com. Anyone who places a winning bid is required to sign the same agreement as the old owner, with the same seizure penalty applicable if they don’t follow up on renovations. New owners are also responsible for any back taxes due on abandoned properties, which then go into city coffers.

Terese Ireland, executive director of Pewabic Pottery, is one of those winning bidders. For years she and her staff had been working in the shadow of the Pembroke apartment building on East Jefferson Avenue and Hurlbut Street, a five-story structure that had become a haven for squatters, criminals and wind-blown trash. Ireland says she sent numerous complaints to the building’s owner, even asking at one point that Pewabic Pottery be allowed to rent a few floors so they could take care of it. Her letters were ignored. In April, after someone tipped her off to the nuisance abatement program, she filed a formal complaint about the structure. In September she bought the building on the Wayne County Web site for $350,000.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to have it,” Ireland says. “It had been a squatter problem and a crime problem for Pewabic,” only about 15 feet away from the property. Now Ireland is having a group of architects suggest uses for the building, which could range from office space to apartments. They’ve already received grants to install new fencing, sidewalks, lighting and curtains in and around the building.

That’s the sort of turnaround story Garland says he’s hoping for. He points to an apartment building on Manistique Street just across the street from the association’s headquarters, one that sits like an ogre in the middle of a blooming neighborhood. Most of the front windows in the 24-unit building are boarded up, but tattered blue tarps flutter over the empty side window frames. The building is surrounded by a busy church to the east, four rehabilitated homes to the south and a building to the west that houses retail stores and apartment units.

“This building is sitting in this booming area,” Garland says. “And I’m not just talking about economics. I’m talking about the human factor. There’s simply no excuse for acquiring property and keeping it blighted.”

Ben Lefebvre is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected] or call