Friday, June 30, 2017

Lawsuit: Disabled, Low-Income Detroit Homeowner Loses Home "Ambush-Style" By Demolition OK'd By City's Land Bank Authority; Municipal 'Perpetrator' Says House Was Blighted, Abandoned, While Victim's Three Long-Time Neighbors Provide Sworn Statements To The Contrary

In Detroit, Michigan, the Detroit Free Press reports:
  • Daniel Murray says his lifelong home on Detroit's west side was seized by the city's Land Bank Authority in an ambush-style eviction — his photos, mother's antiques and the family china cabinet among belongings tossed into a Dumpster and hauled away. Two months later, the property was demolished with federal money at a cost of $22,030.

    The Detroit Land Bank says the building was blighted, utilities were shut off, Murray wasn't living in the house and he never owned the property. And he just wants to embarrass and harass the land bank with a lawsuit filed in Wayne County Circuit Court naming the authority and Rickman Enterprise Group, the demolition contractor, seeking more than $25,000 in damages.

    But earlier this month, the judge in the case, David Groner, denied the land bank's request to dismiss Murray's suit. Among his findings, Groner said Murray had "stated a claim for wrongful eviction" under state law and the lawsuit could proceed.

    Murray declined to be interviewed. But through his attorney, he issued this statement:

    “This house was my home. I grew up there, my family lived there, I lived there, and I kept everything there. I told the Land Bank I was living there and wanted to stay. By destroying the house, the Land Bank destroyed my life.”
    Josh Akers, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who has followed the land bank and teaches geography and urban studies, said the land bank's issues reflect a lack of controls and expertise to manage a large-scale demolition program, especially one with a strong emphasis on speed.

    Akers said oversight is complicated by multiple sources of demolition funds, each with different rules.

    Akers said he is familiar with Murray's case, and believes the land bank should figure out what happened, instead of calling Murray and his neighbors liars, and being so "adamant ... about their right to tear down his house. You can't give Daniel his house back, but you can look at your processes to ensure it doesn't happen again."

    Akers said the land bank doesn't have "that kind of internal capacity. No wonder they're facing so many other outside challenges from the various agencies that oversee them."

    Fahle, the land bank spokesman, declined comment on Murray's situation, citing the pending lawsuit. But he pointed to stronger controls adopted in 2016 to ensure all state and federal guidelines are followed properly.

    According to his lawsuit, Murray's parents bought the house in 1961, when he was 8, and he continued to live there after their deaths; his father in the 1970s, his mother in the 1990s. But he didn't have title to the house. The structure was forfeited to the Wayne County treasurer for non-payment of taxes in September 2011 and ended up in the hands of the land bank in April 2014.

    Murray, who is 64 and receives federal disability benefits, said he was not aware that the land bank owned the property until he got a call from a neighbor, Maurice Gambrell, who said two men had pried open the door to his house with a crowbar, according to the lawsuit.

    Gambrell said the men told him in April 2016 that Murray's house was on the city's demolition list and they were there to empty it, the lawsuit said.

    Murray was in Southfield at the time, watching his grandchildren, and rushed back to Quincy Street, which is northeast of Livernois and Fenkell, to confront the men and make a police report, the suit said.

    The men took Murray's medications and about $250 in cash, the suit claims. They had also strewn other belongings around the house, damaged the blinds and removed the front door.
    "This ambush-style eviction has been deeply traumatic and disruptive to Murray's life. He lost the home he had lived in since age 8, that his deceased parents had purchased. He is now without a home and is renting a room at a family member's house," the suit says.

    "Additionally, Murray lost essentially all of his belongings that he kept in the house," including clothes and furniture. As a person who receives disability and food assistance benefits, "these cannot be easily replaced."

    "Moreover, a price cannot be put on the countless other of his deeply personal family possessions, including family pictures, his family china cabinet, and his mother's antiques," the suit claims.
    Three of Murray's neighbors have signed sworn affidavits saying he lived in the house.

    "Anyone who looked at 15745 Quincy from the street would have seen that the home was occupied and not abandoned. 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," said neighbor Shona Butts.

    Two other neighbors, Dwayne Lee and Gambrell, said Murray would regularly shovel the snow, mow the lawn and take out the trash. Lee said he would "often see the lights on in Daniel's house."

    In an interview on his front porch, Gambrell said: "It's not fair the way they took the house down." He said Murray's house could have been fixed up for less than the more than $22,000 spent on the demolition.

    David Harris of Southfield said in an affidavit that he and Murray grew up as neighbors on Quincy and have known each other for more than 50 years. Harris said he would pick him up at his house twice a week to take him on errands because Murray didn't have a car.

    He said he went inside Murray's house frequently, and it was "where he kept all his possessions. He was not a resident at any other home."