Detroit neighborhood puts out a call for squatters
Wanted: One good squatter.
It’s no joke. In a remote pocket of northwest Detroit along the Rouge River, neighbors are so desperate to stop a cycle of abandonment and blight they’re recruiting a squatter to occupy a home whose longtime owners left last weekend.
That’s because neighbors fear the onetime farmhouse on Puritan and Hazelton will be stripped and torched if it remains empty for long. Eight nearby houses burned in the past two years. A few blocks away, there are more weedy lots than homes.
“We want squatters. There’s so much abandonment here, we need them to turn the neighborhood around,” said Jennifer Mergos, 33, co-founder of the Northwest Brightmoor Renaissance neighborhood group.
Squatting is illegal in Michigan, punishable by up to two years in prison for repeat offenders under laws passed last year. But 10 years into a mortgage crisis that has seen 1 in 3 homes foreclosed in Detroit, Mergos and other neighbors view squatting as a solution instead of a scourge.
“Most people around here are perfectly fine with squatters,” said Sky Brown, another neighbor.
She acknowledged that sounds weird. But the situation is unusual and so is the neighborhood. The 95-year-old farmhouse is on a dead-end gravel road and overlooks woods and a creek. Next door is a house with no windows that appears to be heated with a wood stove.
Just blocks away are busy Telegraph and McNichols roads. No one but neighbors are coming to the rescue, said Brown and Mergos.
“The neighborhood is rallying around this house because it’s a tipping point to stop the continued destruction that’s happened around here,” said Mergos, an urban farmer who lives a mile away in Redford Township.
“If I didn’t have three small children, I’d squat in there in a heartbeat with a dog, a gun and some wasp spray.”
She’s motivated in part because she couldn’t save her own home two doors down from the farmhouse. Mergos had planned to rehab it and live there with her boyfriend, Sparrow Rissman. But it burned twice in two years after he bought it from the tax auction in 2013.
Undeterred, Mergos began a community garden, Sunnyside Farms, on the site of her burned home. Someone tried to wreck the garden, so she placed five beehives to keep away troublemakers.
“I’m trying to bring something positive to the neighborhood,” said Mergos, who grew up in Brightmoor. “There’s nothing to do now and nowhere to go, so lighting homes on fire is the entertainment.”
At least 350 other homes in the neighborhood are fire-damaged, while one-third of Brightmoor properties are vacant, according to data from the Detroit Blight Task Force. The population of the four-square-mile neighborhood, which stretches from Interstate 96 to Puritan, has fallen in half to 12,000 since 1990.
Detroit has led the nation in arson rates for years. And while there are no statistics on squatting, city data indicate at least 5,500 publicly owned, abandoned buildings are likely occupied.
Squatting is the next step in a do-it-yourself culture that’s taken root by necessity in Detroit, said neighborhood leader Riet Schumack.
Brightmoor neighbors already mow lawns and board vacant homes, she said. Technically, that’s trespassing and illegal, Schumack added.
“As long as squatters are not becoming a great nuisance to the community, we allow it to happen,” said Schumack, co-founder of Neighbors Building Brightmoor, a group that maintains 200 properties.
“It’s not black and white. You want someone in the house when it’s still functioning. Otherwise, it will be destroyed in 24 hours.”
Only in Detroit
Accepting squatters is one thing. But how does a neighborhood recruit them?
It’s an only-in-Detroit question, Brown acknowledged. And neighbors don’t want just any squatters. They want ones who won’t sell drugs or sex but will maintain the house and ward off arsonists if necessary.
So Brown asked several squatters she knows for referrals and alerted the Detroit Arson Squad, while another neighbor informed The Detroit News about the situation.
Within days, she got four good leads. By Thursday, Brown received word that a couple may be moving into the home.
“The over-arching theme is that the city of Detroit does nothing, so we’re forced to do our own thing,” said Brown, 34, a Wayne County Community College professor.
Brown also made headlines last year. That’s when she and her husband, David, bought a $2,000 house in the neighborhood in hopes of forming a kibbutz, a Jewish communal settlement. City officials seized backyard goats and charged the couple with violating ordinances.
The case ended when she agreed to perform community service. She wasn’t able to save the goats.
As the case dragged on, the couple set their sights on the farmhouse and negotiated for months to acquire it in a short sale, a transaction in which lenders agree to take less money than is owed on the mortgage.
The deal fell through because the lender, Fannie Mae, wanted $65,000 for the 1,400-square-foot home, Brown said.
The owners of the farmhouse did not return phone calls from The Detroit News. The home’s front door is secured by three deadbolt locks.
Neighbors say that’s not enough.
Next door, Keith Stone Sr. lives in a tiny house with no siding and plywood covering all windows and front door.
The property is encircled with a fence made from concrete chunks and protected by at least two dogs. Stone said he covered the windows “to keep people out.”
“Around here, the scrappers will scrap it if they get a chance,” said Stone, a tree trimmer. “I was gone once for six hours and they took my siding.”
‘Takeovers or holdovers’
The issue is percolating as Wayne County is conducting its annual auction of tax-foreclosed homes this month and October. About 8,000 of the 25,000 Detroit properties for sale are occupied, which means occupants could become squatters in homes they used to own.
“Detroit could be the largest phenomenon of squatting in recent history in America,” said Bernadette Atuahene, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.
She spent the summer interviewing 40 squatters in Detroit and said she has “no trouble finding them.”
Atuahene categorizes squatters as “takeovers or holdovers.” Takeovers break into properties. Holdovers lost their homes to foreclosure or are former renters.
In places like Brightmoor, legal distinctions of ownership aren’t that important, said Ken Jackson, who has lived around the corner from the farmhouse since 1989.
“Squatter, owner, it doesn’t matter who lives there as long as they take care of the property,” said Jackson, a warehouse worker.