Detroit blight overseer past violator of nuisance rules

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
From left, Charles Voden, owner of Voden Construction Co., consults with Leor Barak about the house Barak is fixing up in the West Village.

Detroit— The new manager hired to oversee Detroit’s nuisance abatement program was himself sued under the same program last year for violating the rules in fixing up a blighted property of his own, The Detroit News has learned.

Leor Barak, a 35-year-old attorney hired in January to track progress on mandated repairs for hundreds of dilapidated properties, said he disclosed the lawsuit during his interview. He said his experience makes him uniquely qualified for the $55,000-a-year post with the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

“I think it’s a great thing for Detroit to find a way to hold property owners accountable,” Barak told the News. “It’s a tough thing.”

In the new position, Barak heads a four-member team that puts residents of run-down vacant properties on notice to either fix them or risk losing them. The land bank is a public authority focused on returning Detroit’s vacant, abandoned and foreclosed properties to productive use.

Barak said he sought the job based on his passion for the city, commitment to repairing the housing stock and curbing blight — and his personal experience with the challenges of rehabbing.

Last fall, Barak was sued for failing to meet a reporting deadline on the progress of a blighted two-story flat on Shipherd that he is rehabilitating in the city’s West Village neighborhood.

He purchased the 3,000-square-foot house for $2,500 in a county tax auction in December, 2013.

Barak said the land bank posted a notice on the house last year warning him to fix up the home or risk legal action. He said he immediately entered into an out-of-court agreement for the rehab project and to provide monthly updates on progress.

“From the first moment that I saw the poster on my door, I had both like an ‘oh crap’ moment, but most of me was like ‘this is great, the Detroit land bank has built capacity and it is now doing the work that we all know Detroit needs,’ ” he said.

But last fall he was slapped with a lawsuit by the city of Detroit and land bank for missing a reporting deadline. Afterward, Barak reached a consent agreement through the court for completing the renovation work.

Since then, he said he’s obtained Detroit Historic District Commission approvals for renovating the historic home and has sunk more than $75,000 into a new roof, siding and 32 windows.

Wayne State University law professor John Mogk, who specializes in urban law and policy, called the hire “highly unusual.”

“It seems to be highly unusual that you’d have somebody who was charged with a violation actually in charge of compliance,” Mogk said. “But there could be distinct advantages. That person would understand the difficulties that the property owner faces.”

Land bank spokesman Craig Fahle confirmed that Barak disclosed the nuisance lawsuit in his interview for the post. Land bank officials, Fahle said, view Barak’s legal snag as an advantage. He was hired in part based on the fact that he has personally gone through the process, stepped up and is meeting his obligations, Fahle added.

“Having empathy for folks in that situation is kind of important. It’s an advantage for us because we have somebody that’s extremely knowledgeable from both sides of the equation,” Fahle said. “That just gives him a lot of experience and insight that frankly, if you haven’t been through it you might not have. So, it’s been an asset.”

The Duggan administration launched the nuisance abatement program in the spring of 2014 to attack blight and help rebuild some of the city’s most run-down neighborhoods.

Barak’s property — 1094 Shipherd — is directly behind Seyburn Street, where Barak has lived in for close to a decade. For years, he’s watched the Shipherd house deteriorate.

“It was kind of sad. This was the lone house on this block,” he said. “It’s been vacant and abandoned for as long as I can remember.”

As the rehab of the Shipherd property progresses, Barak says he submits his property updates from a personal email address and never touched his own file. The work is being monitored by another staff member for the land bank, he said.

The transformation is being celebrated by many of Barak’s West Village neighbors. Among them is Tina Shereda, who has lived in the area for more than a decade.

“I think it’s a great thing that Leor was able to get this house and he’s fixing it up. It’s really good for the revitalization of the neighborhood,” said Shereda, who lives a couple blocks from Barak’s Shipherd home.

Under the nuisance program, the land bank first places poster notices on targeted homes identified in partnership with Detroit’s neighborhood district managers and vacancy data.

Once a poster goes up, the property owner has three days to contact the land bank to enter into a consent agreement to fix up the home.

If they fail to respond, a nuisance lawsuit is filed in Wayne County Circuit Court. Property owners are given 28 days to respond to the lawsuit or the land bank pursues a default judgment to gain title.

There have been 2,934 lawsuits filed against property owners and 922 consent agreements have been signed with the land bank. The program gives property owners six months to gain compliance or nine for historic properties. The land bank also provides extensions when a homeowner is making rehabilitation efforts and meeting reporting deadlines.

The land bank has gained more than 950 default judgments in which it was awarded property titles in court hearings when owners failed to appear, or contested the suit and lost. In addition, 109 property owners have donated their vacant homes. Other cases remain in various stages of the legal process.

Acquired properties are put into the land bank’s home auction program or, if not salvageable, added to the demolition pipeline.

Barak says he’s working toward completion of his rehabilitation project. He intends to retain ownership of the home and may use it as a rental.

“Nobody in the neighborhood had any hope of it actually being restored and assumed it was going to be demolished,” he said. “I’m just excited to see it come back to life.”