Residents and business owners fed up with dilapidated buildings and the city's inaction have started to sue absentee property owners to get results.
Two nonprofits in the city recently launched projects helping community members file lawsuits against neighbors who have nuisance properties, hoping a judge will order improvements and impose fines if they aren't done.
Detroiters regularly board up and mow the lawns of abandoned properties in the city's absence, but taking neighbors to court is an escalation of residents' battle with blight. The Mayor has made razing vacant homes a priority, but there are still about 34,000 buildings in the demolition process.
A nine-year resident of the west side's University District is frustrated that they have to resort to legal action, who in February sued her neighbor over the woman's vacant, fire-damaged house. The neighbor's home, a stately, dark-brick house with a turret and leaded glass in the 17000 block of Wildemere, has sat vacant in one of the city's most beautiful neighborhoods since a Mother's Day fire last year.
The rear of the home was extensively damaged and the garage had to be demolished. Scavengers broke through a window and have stripped some of the plumbing and, on a recent day, a prostitute used the house for an afternoon transaction, neighbors said.
So when members of the Detroit Crime Commission surveyed University District neighbors about filing private nuisance lawsuits, the home was at the top of their list.
The lawsuits are filed with the help of lawyers working with the newly formed Detroit Crime Commission and Michigan Community Resources. Officials with both nonprofits said litigation fills the gaps where local government no longer has the resources.
Detroit's blight court could see a 51 percent funding cut in the mayor's proposed budget to $657,000, while the law department could see a 55 percent reduction to $8.6 million. Wayne County eliminated a similar blight-fighting program in 2010 that forced absentee owners to fix properties or risk losing them in court, filing more than 800 lawsuits in its last year.
There's less of a hammer under these private nuisance lawsuits, experts said. The property can't be seized, but a judge could set up a repair timeline and fine owners for not following it.
The commission — launched last fall with funding from anonymous donors — is run by a small group of retired police officers, including its incoming executive director, the retiring top agent of the Detroit FBI.
Officials with the nonprofit wouldn't disclose its budget but said the goal is to help the city and law enforcement officials fight crime amid dwindling resources.
The group's deputy director, said it has filed five lawsuits and plans about 50 this year alone. The group hopes to target some of the city's largest speculators who are holding onto dilapidated properties.
The group's already had some success. Recently, a church boarded up two properties it owned in the University District after it was sued over them.
Another group, Michigan Community Resources, recently set up a similar program, filing two lawsuits against absentee owners.
Properties have to meet specific criteria for the groups to get involved. It includes: The owner can't be indigent; the house can't be on the city's demolition list; and the property can't be in tax foreclosure.
Michigan Community Resources' recent lawsuit was filed with the Southwest Detroit Business Association and three other groups in the area against the owner of a burned out storefront on West Vernor near Springwells.
The building was heavily damaged in a July 2010 fire and neighbors have spent about $5,000 boarding it and cleaning up graffiti. Still, scrappers routinely rummage through it and people are worried sections could collapse. The owner hasn't responded yet to the lawsuit and couldn't be reached by The Detroit News.
Mayoral staffers said they will continue to work with residents and other community groups to hold property owners accountable.
A Dearborn Property Lawyer said that Detroit is clearly not capable of forcing owners to maintain safe properties. But he worries these suits could clog courts with personal beefs.
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