In U.S. cities where the number of blighted, abandoned properties outpaces demand for homes, land banks can be a surprisingly cost-effective solution. But what if one of those “abandoned” properties isn’t actually abandoned?
That question is being posed in Wayne County Circuit Court, where plaintiff Daniel Murray claims the quasi-governmental Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) seized his family home in an “ambush-style eviction,” according to the Detroit Free Press. The Authority maintains that it acted lawfully, arguing that “the building was blighted, utilities were shut off, Murray wasn’t living in the house and he never owned the property,” according to the newspaper. The DLBA is calling Murray’s claims an attempt to “embarrass and harass” the organization (along with the demolition contractor). The paper reports that Murray is hoping to collect upward of $25,000 in damages.
Murray claims that he did, indeed, live in the house on Detroit’s West Side. According to the lawsuit, he kept his belongings there, including clothes and furniture. His family’s longtime possessions, like pictures and his deceased mother’s antiques and china, were allegedly among the items that were thrown into a dumpster and taken away. Three of his neighbors have signed sworn affidavits saying he lived in the house.
“Anyone who looked at [the house] from the street would have seen that the home was occupied and not abandoned,” neighbor Shona Butts told the Free Press. “The lawn was continuously mowed and otherwise kept up, the doors and windows were locked, there were possessions in the home, and a gate was up around the yard.”
DLBA lawyers, however, told the court that there was no “credible or reasonable” sign of human occupancy at the property during multiple investigations. But the Free Press points out that “the CEO of a company that did a 2014 inspection said in a sworn statement that it was an ‘external inspection only.’” The DLBA also said (as recorded in court documents reported on by the paper) that gas and electricity were turned off in December 2015 and water was turned off in 2008 — though that’s disputed by Murray’s lawyer.
In 2015, the Detroit Land Bank Authority adopted a tactic that it termed “judicious demolition,” and reduced its estimate of recommended wrecking balls throughout Detroit. The potential health issues with mass razes (dust, pollution, fill dirt from who knows where) have made Detroit residents wary in the past, and new standards were developed for demolition that same year.
The city’s efforts to handle blight haven’t been without bumps. In 2014, a casino developer scooped up about 6,000 foreclosed properties in a single bid — a move that no one had foreseen. The developer had a worrisome history of property responsibility, including tax liens filed against him that totaled $227,530 and dated back to 2009, as Next City contributor Anna Clark reported at the time. He eventually dropped the bid.
Regarding the lawsuit, the Detroit Free Press spoke to Josh Akers, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who has followed the Detroit Land Bank Authority. He believes that the organization’s issues “reflect a lack of controls and expertise to manage a large-scale demolition program, especially one with a strong emphasis on speed,” according to the paper.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.