City of Detroit: FCA not at fault for delayed home repairs near new plant

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib criticized Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV this week for not keeping its commitments to residents living around its new $1.6 billion assembly plant on Detroit’s east side — but the city says the Italian American automaker is not at fault.

As a part of its community benefits agreement with impact-zone residents and the city of Detroit, Fiat Chrysler agreed to fund $1.8 million in home repair grants with priority given to homeowners along Beniteau Street. Residents near the plant say construction has done damage to their homes and foundations, and Tlaib says many are struggling to get the money they are owed.

Construction crews build the new paint shop at the FCA Mack Avenue site.

“I have heard firsthand from residents who feel like they’re being ignored and pushed out and it’s time FCA actually heard those concerns and addressed them properly,” Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat, said in a statement Wednesday. "These residents need protection from air pollution today, and it means FCA must pony up the money necessary to repair and replace roofs, windows, furnaces, air filtration systems, and other tools to keep our residents safe and breathing clean air. These are the benefits residents originally demanded and have been functionally denied.”

Fiat Chrysler, however, is merely funding the home repairs program. The city’s Housing and Revitalization Department is in charge of administering the funds of up to $15,000 per household, which residents can determine how to use.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.

“FCA did exactly what they were supposed to do,” Arthur Jemison, the city’s group executive for planning, housing and revitalization, said in a statement. “The City’s obligation to use the FCA funds and do home repairs and demolitions was delayed in its implementation by Covid.”

The city has resolved those issues, Jemison said, and work crews within the past two weeks have begun making repairs in residents’ homes and doing demolitions on Beniteau.

“It would have been helpful if Rep. Tlaib had reached out to us about this program before issuing a press release about it, so she could she could have been more fully informed,” Jemison added.

Robert Shobe, a 58-year-old Beniteau resident, has seen repairs in recent weeks being done on his neighbor’s bathrooms and porches. His foundation has shifted from the vibrations during construction, he says. He is considering getting his porch repaired, but with the assembly plant slated to begin production in the first quarter of 2021, he would prefer to leave.

“I would love to get out of here,” said Shobe, a disabled cancer patient who can see the plant from the home in which he has lived for almost 25 years and has a son with a kidney transplant. “I fear for my health and safety. I don’t feel like we were represented. It’s like they ran over us from the start.”

Fiat Chrysler last year negotiated with the city and a nine-member neighborhood advisory council consisting of residents, two of whom were directly elected by those living in the impact zone. In it, FCA committed more then $35 million for neighborhood improvements, housing, workforce development, education, training programs and environmental initiatives in addition to agreeing to hire Detroiters first. The company has extended more than 1,600 job offers so far.

Specifically, Shobe is concerned about chemicals released from the assembly plant’s paint shop, which didn’t exist when the facility on Mack Avenue was producing engines. Tlaib is calling on residents to share comments with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy by Friday on two permits Fiat Chrysler is requesting for the future Mack assembly plant and the adjacent Jefferson North Assembly Plant, which is getting $900 million in updates.

Fiat Chrysler has said the Mack assembly plant will represent a 10% reduction in emissions in the region when included with upgrades ongoing at its assembly plant in Warren. The Mack site is expected to produce a third of the volatile organic compounds that Jefferson North. Volatile organic compounds become vapor at room temperature.

The vapors at the Mack plant will be within the Environmental Protection Agency’s lowest achievable emission rate, the company has said. A two-tone paint line at Jefferson North that allows the roof or side panels of a vehicle be painted a different color than the rest of it would increase emissions, but other upgrades to the facility will make up for it.

"We now know that air pollutants can increase the risk for COVID-19," Tlaib wrote, "and it is no coincidence that the Detroit communities hardest hit by COVID-19 overlap significantly with those communities most exposed to air pollution — including the community living and breathing the air FCA pollutes every day.

Additionally, FCA has agreed to add an ambient air-quality monitoring station to the north side of its property. The data would be shared with the state’s environment department to enhance Michigan’s air monitoring network.

“FCA's commitment to Detroit goes well beyond our facilities,” the company said in a statement. “We listened carefully to the community and the (community benefits agreement) reflects their input and priorities, and we value our ongoing partnership with community members to revitalize our shared neighborhood.”

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble