Ypsilanti Township uses task force to clean up hundreds of blighted properties
On Stevens Drive in Ypsilanti Township, a 31-unit apartment building sat crumbling for more than a year after a September 2009 fire. Neighbors complained and it became a dangerous attraction for kids.
On Verna Street, a vacant house was growing mold stalagmites several feet long. Authorities identified six different mold species growing in the house. Neighbors began to get sick.
On Stony Creek Road, a man turned a residential property into a junkyard with a variety of snowmobiles, cars and other vehicle and vehicle parts amassed on the land.
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These properties are just three of more than 100 the township has cleaned up since the Office of Community Standards developed a task force to tackle the problem of blighted property.
"Before developing ... this program, houses would stay burned out or neglected for years and there was no enforcement; they were not on the radar,” said Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo. “Now, we have developed a process to preserve and protect our neighborhoods and business districts. This program is a good investment of taxpayers' money that has impacted all areas of the township. “
Blight issues came to the township's attention in 2007 when officials began receiving a growing number of complaints from longtime residents about the condition of single-family rental homes.
After taking stock of the township's housing, officials were surprised to discover nearly 1,800 rental homes — not including apartment buildings — and far more vacant houses than they imagined. Rentals accounted for 12 percent of their single-family home properties, and in the West Willow area, the township's largest neighborhood with 1,400 homes, rentals accounted for 35 percent of the stock.
It was a shock for a township with a solid tradition of home ownership until the closing of its major industrial employers in recent years. At the same time, the foreclosure rate in Ypsilanti Township spiked and remains one of the highest in the county.
"We quickly realized the scope of the issues," said Mike Radzik, director of the Office of Community Standards. "They were having a negative impact on the neighborhoods, but at first we didn't have a handle on how serious the situation was."
Since forming the OCS and community stabilization program, township officials have identified a list of 180 properties, which are considered the most serious cases. Of those, 110 cases have been closed, but the list grows weekly. The township has also corrected nearly 13,000 code violations, and Radzik said the rental housing stock is "significantly safer and better maintained" because of the program.
The OCS’s first undertaking in 2008 was the cleaning up of the deteriorating Ypsilanti Mobile Village trailer park on East Michigan Avenue, which, after two years, is nearing a successful conclusion. The condemnation of the Liberty Square condominium complex off Grove Road is another long-term effort.
Of the structures on the OCS’s public nuisance abatement list, 104 are classified as having structural blight issues, 60 have sustained significant fire damage and another 16 are improperly zoned.
Aside from extreme examples like Liberty Square or Ypsilanti Mobile Village, "common" structural blight issues include mold infestations or hoarding, Radzik said.
In one instance, the OCS responded to complaints about the odor from an apartment of a woman hoarding cats in Roundtree Apartments. Upon inspecting, ordinance officers discovered dozens of cats and found the floor soaked in the animals' urine.
The interior was condemned for its unsanitary conditions, and because the woman refused to clean it, the township filed suit in circuit court. A judge ordered the woman to bring the property up to code.
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In a recent zoning case, a man had taken over township property that bordered his back yard and built a makeshift “factory” to manufacture 55-gallon barbecue pits. He then placed signs along adjacent Ford Boulevard.
The man ignored multiple township requests to cease and desist operating, leading the township to sue. The owner agreed to dismantle the operation after one hearing, and, following the court case, Township Planning Coordinator Joe Lawson was able to locate a site properly zoned for a barbecue pit factory.
Radzik said the township has made good use of a state law allowing officials to request insurance companies place a portion of money paid out after a house fire into a fire escrow account. If an owner doesn't clean up the property or rebuild, the township can pull the money from the account to clean up the property. So far the fire insurance escrow fund has either paid for or encouraged owners to clean up seven properties.
Radzik said officials also address more routine issues such as abandoned cars, lawns that need mowing or garbage-related issues.
“We try to keep up with those, too,” he said. “We pride ourselves on doing same-day service if the call gets there early in the day. Someone will try to respond and within 24 hours to 14 days, we can have it taken care of. We don’t have to go to court on probably 95 percent of cases.”
Though officials have encountered situations in which people were living in a condemned structure, Radzik said the township never forces anyone onto the street.
“That’s something we won’t do,” he said.
In one case, ordinance officer Bill Elling used his personal credit card to purchase a cartload of groceries for a woman who had been dislocated from her condemned home and had no money.
“You would never hear him tell that story because he’s not looking for a pat on the back, but we’re fortunate to have people like that working for us,” Radzik said.
In all cases, Radzik said, officials first urge property owners to address blight voluntarily.
“Our goal is always voluntary compliance for a couple reasons. It is infinitely less work for us and it costs taxpayers much less,” Radzik said. “There have been innumerable cases where the property owner stepped up and we didn’t need to get attorneys involved."
Township building inspector Ron Fulton said that approach is also a good strategy financially. “We would much rather have the building rehabbed and put back as an active member of the tax roll,” he said.
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Although some residents have complained about the legal costs associated with the effort, officials said the return far outweighs the investment, and the cost of nearly every demolition has been covered through grant money or owner funds. A federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant for more than $300,000 paid for 14 demolitions and another 12 were funded by owners. Only two were funded by the township under special circumstances.
Aside from attorneys' fees, township officials must factor in how much time OCS officials dedicate when considering the cost. Although Radzik said there is no figure available, officials believe they get a return on their investment.
"The alternative, in the end, is more costly with falling values of real estate," Fulton said.
Radzik said property values and appearances are not the only considerations. He pointed to the Verna Street mold infestation. Officials orchestrated a controlled burn with the Fie Department to safely bring down the structure. Although the township paid for the demolition, a lien has been placed on the property.
"How do you quantify residents' health?" Radzik asked.
John Pappas was one of the residents living near the Verna Street home who had complained about the infestation.
"They were burning something that was only 14 feet from my house so we were concerned," Pappas said. "But they planned it, put up barrier walls, and wrapped everything. We were just happy to see it gone. ... They did a good job with it and I have nothing but praise for them."
Editor's note: The number of homes in the West Willow neighborhood has been corrected.
Tom Perkins is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com. Reach the news desk at 734-623-2530. For more Ypsilanti stories, visit our Ypsilanti page.