At the doorstep of 13694 Tacoma sits a story of Detroit’s eviction epidemic.
A landlord who dodges city rules. Tenants without options saddled with poor conditions. And neighbors trapped by blight, ignored by a city they say is focused on more successful neighborhoods.
“It used to have grass,” said Kevin Brown, of the east side rental two doors down on Tacoma, whose front yard is a mix of hard-packed mud and trash. “We can’t even keep our property up because of all the garbage. The rats come out in the daytime. It’s so terrible.
“The house should be condemned.”
The east side bungalow is owned by Jeffrey Cusimano, a longtime landlord from Clinton Township who has navigated Detroit’s rental market since at least the early 1990s and ranks as one of the city’s most prolific eviction filers.
He’s brought more than 1,100 cases citywide against tenants since 2009. He dismisses complaints from former tenants and neighbors that he rents rundown homes, telling The News in a brief interview that his rentals are “up to par.” But he admitted none have been inspected by the city.
Cusimano represents himself in 36th District Court instead of hiring an attorney, wearing a Carhartt jacket embroidered “Jeff.” And he knows how to find a deal, building much of his portfolio — now about 100 rentals, he says — snagging houses on the cheap from banks or the county looking to unload foreclosures.
The “Beware of Dog” sign outside his East Seven Mile rental office was not just for show. He’s been sued three times in the last five years from people who claim they’d been bitten by dogs at his office.
Tacoma Street has been a home base. The News found at least 29 houses in an eight-block area that Cusimano or companies he is affiliated with owns or had owned.
When Cusimano was defaulting on bank loans on Tacoma during the 2008 real estate meltdown, companies he’s affiliated with purchased other foreclosed houses on the same block for bargain-basement prices. That includes the 1,100-square-foot brick bungalow at 13694 Tacoma.
He paid just $1,500 for it in 2008, after it went into foreclosure on a $89,000 sub-prime mortgage issued just two years earlier.
‘House that Jack built’
Since 2009, Cusimano has filed 19 eviction cases against the home’s renters.
Four of those cases were against Lucretia Cunigan, who admitted paying her $600-a-month rent late, but said it was in part because Cusimano wouldn’t deal with leaks, a window that kept falling out, mold on the walls and roaches.
“It was like the house that Jack built,” said Cunigan, who rented it in 2014 for her sister and her nieces and nephews before moving in herself. “He never would come and fix anything. He’s a slumlord.”
She said she would eventually pay her overdue rent because she had nowhere else to move and Cusimano wouldn’t follow through on the eviction. She moved out in 2015 but had to put her new rental in her husband’s name because the eviction cases were on her credit report.
Michelle Phillips was living in the home in January with four children — all under age 10 — and had similar repair complaints. She said she had roaches and bed bugs. The roof leaked. The electricity flickered on and off in different rooms. And she had to use buckets of water to flush the broken toilet.
She covered a missing upstairs window with plastic and used a space heater to make the room liveable in the winter.
“The upstairs never gets heat,” said Phillips, who also paid $600 a month. “No one should be able to live in conditions like this.”
There is no record the city inspected 13694 Tacoma since Cusimano bought it in 2008, according to the records. Detroit officials admit most landlords have been able to avoid inspections without penalty for years but say they are in the midst of a crackdown.
Cusimano told The News that Phillips never complained to him of the repair problems.
Asked if he was a slumlord, he said: “Some people say that, but other people come back to me to rent.” He refused to answer more questions from The News.
Two tenants living in other houses owned by Cusimano told The News he is a good landlord, but refused to give their names.
One former tenant was more forthcoming. “I have never had a problem with him,” said Neisha Richards, who told The News she used to rent from Cusimano. “He’s a good landlord.”
Cusimano filed four evictions cases against Phillips while she lived there, and it appears she moved out after the most recent one in April. The same month he filed a small claims case against her and when she didn’t show up for the hearing, a judge entered a judgment of default against her for $2,164 in back rent and fees. She didn’t return calls from The News after she moved.
Landlord Jeffrey Cusimano has made this east side street a home base, buying his first house on Tacoma in 1989.
Since then he’s been tied to 29 properties in an eight-block area surrounding 13694 Tacoma, all of which have cycled through mortgage and tax foreclosure.
Cusimano or companies he is affiliated with still owned 14 of the homes as of spring 2017.
Post-cash buying blitz, blight
Brown and his wife Beverly remember when 13694 Tacoma blended in with the street’s other tidy yards and well-kept homes when they bought their bungalow in 1997.
But when the real estate crash hit in 2008, they noticed Cusimano buying up more properties as the neighborhood declined. Today, the Browns are outnumbered by vacant, burned-out houses. And they blame Cusimano for much of the blight.
“He just got anybody in there that would pay him,” Beverly Brown said. “A lot of the destruction you see around here would not have happened.”
The couple said tenants at 13694 Tacoma have been a constant problem: loud radios, speeding cars, piles of garbage on the lawn and people seen urinating in the yard in the daytime. The couple has cameras around their home and a six-foot wooden privacy fence surrounding their backyard.
Brown and his wife said they’ve gone to police with complaints about the tenants without help.
The Browns’ mortgage is paid off, and they can’t afford to move.
“There is nothing we can do about it,” said Kevin Brown. “We aren’t a high priority.”
Turnover, but no taxes paid
While the Browns paid their tax bills, it wasn’t a requirement for Cusimano at 13694 Tacoma.
He kept the rental for nine years without paying a property tax bill, instead buying it back twice at the tax auction each time it was foreclosed by the Wayne County treasurer.
He let 13694 Tacoma go into foreclosure in 2011 and 2014, buying it back with a different company he is affiliated with. Each time he just had to pay the minimum bid price of $500 because no one else wanted it.
He made one payment of $850 last year on the tax debt, according to the treasurer’s office, but overall erased nearly $22,400 in taxes, interest and fees on the home. The News found another house he has purchased at tax auction three separate times.
Cusimano’s attorney, Paul Louisell, said the city’s property taxes were inflated for years and landlords, like Cusimano, made business decisions to survive.
“He’s not a bad guy,” Louisell said. “This is the way the city did business for 30 years.”
Another $4,370 in taxes is now owed on 13694 Tacoma, and the home should have been auctioned off again this September.
But the Wayne County treasurer allowed Cusimano to enter into a payment plan this spring, giving him more time to hold on to the home.
The situation is maddening to Beverly Brown.
“We are over here struggling in this house, and this guy is getting all the breaks year after year,” she said. “It’s very disheartening that we stand here in this blight surrounded by this terribleness and this guy can walk through the system like he does. The system, the city, the government has really hurt us, and they’ve only helped him.”
In August, the city sued Cusimano’s company for more than $150,000 in unpaid property taxes, and officials say he and his companies owe $51,000 in blight fines. Cusimano has denied the debt in court records.
Gunfire signaled the end
In April, first came gunshots and then the fire.
Late one night, the Browns woke to six shots coming from 13694 Tacoma. The couple said they saw the tenants outside screaming and an ambulance responded. No one was hurt, police said.
Then the next day around 2 p.m., a fire broke out in the home. Again, no one was hurt, and the home was all but destroyed. Officials said an accelerant was used to start the blaze.
The home is charred and vacant now; firefighters punched holes in the roof to put out the fire. There are two bullet holes in the front window.
Chances are Cusimano won’t try to hold on to the home.
“Which house? Oh, that’s going back to the land bank,” Cusimano told The News when asked his plans after the fire.
To the Browns, it’s their version of a happy ending.
Kevin Brown said he didn’t call 911 right away when he saw the flames.
“Why should I?” he said. “Let it burn a little.”
One house, many foreclosures
March 2006: The bungalow at 13694 Tacoma had been through two mortgage foreclosures when Jermaine Jones buys it for $94,000. He takes out an $84,600 mortgage from California-based Fremont Investment & Loan with an adjustable rate that could have jumped to 15.7 percent. Fremont would file for bankruptcy two years later as a part of the subprime mortgage crisis.
January 2007: Homecomings Financial Network, the bank that acquired the loan, forecloses. Jones owed $89,807 at the time, records show.
February 2008: Cusimano Brothers Properties LLC buys the house for $1,500 from Homecomings.
2011: Wayne County forecloses on Cusimano Brothers Properties for $12,500 in unpaid property taxes. Another company affiliated with Cusimano, Vergote’s Properties, buys it at auction for $500.
2014: Wayne County forecloses on Vergote’s Properties for $9,900 in unpaid property taxes. Cusimano Brothers Properties buys the home back at auction for $500.
April 2017: Wayne County could have foreclosed on the home for more than $4,370 in back taxes but allowed Cusimano to enter into a payment plan to avoid the auction.
Sources: Wayne County Treasurer and Detroit News research