Woman squatting in childhood home ‘wouldn’t leave’

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The paint chipped. The bricks cracked. The steps bowed.

Gracie Hughes, in an image copied from a family video shot on Mother’s Day.

But 56-year-old Gracie Hughes loved every piece of her two-story childhood home on the city’s east side, so much so she remained long after her family moved out.

Nothing — not offers to stay elsewhere, not the lack of utilities at the home, not the deteriorating condition of the neighborhood — could convince her to abandon the house on the 5000 block of Parker she did not own.

And it was in that home, once proudly owned by her parents, Leonard and Oralee Hughes, where police Thursday said Gracie Hughes was found fatally stabbed and then her body was burned inside, confirming her family’s worst fears.

“We tried to get her to leave that house for 20 years,” said Virginia Hughes, 43, her niece. “She had no heat, no lights, no water” and had to make arrangements to bathe at a friend’s house.

“But she wouldn’t leave,” Virginia Hughes said.

Gracie Hughes isn’t alone in her feelings of wanting to stay in a place that has created a lifetime of memories. Detroit has roughly 7,500 occupied-but-tax-foreclosed homes owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

As part of its Motor City Mapping initiative to survey the condition of every structure in Detroit, Loveland Technologies paid a visit to the Hughes home in January 2014. It reported that the home was “possibly occupied,” its condition was “good,” and it had no fire damage or dumping.

Loveland CEO Jerry Paffendorf said with an average Detroit household size of 2.76 people, some 20,000 people or more could be living in homes they don’t own title or have rental agreement to, and have no permission to occupy. Many squatters are former homeowners, he said, or people such as Hughes.

Paffendorf said there are another 9,000 occupied homes in Detroit that have gone into tax foreclosure just this year. If their owners don’t get on payment plans soon, Paffendorf said, they could lose the homes.

The rear of the home on the 5000 block of Parker.

County foreclosed in 2012

The Hughes home hadn’t had running water or electricity since 2009 and 2006 respectively, and it was lost to the Wayne County treasurer via tax foreclosure in 2012. .

Nobody bid on the $500 purchase price, so ownership was transferred to the city of Detroit.

In July 2014, it was transferred to its current owner, the land bank, said spokesman Craig Fahle. Fahle called the authority Detroit’s “property owner of last resort.” It owns about 30,000 of the 385,000 structures in Detroit.

The home was on the land bank’s demolition pipeline, Fahle said, but those efforts, which include asbestos checks and removal and the removal of gas lines, were halted when officials learned the home was occupied.

“We don’t kick people out of houses,” Fahle said.

Evictions do occur if a home that’s occupied is bought by someone else.

On April 8, Hughes reached out to the authority about possibly buying the home back. The land bank has a program for former owners or tenants, who are still occupying homes it owns, to purchase them.

It requires $1,000 for the would-be owner to take home ownership counseling, and for that person to save 1/12 of the property tax bill every month for a year, which would be applied to property taxes in the first year of ownership. Then the land bank will sell it back.

About 40 people have gone through the program, which is still in its pilot phase, Fahle said.

As for Hughes’ efforts to regain ownership, “we may not have even gotten back to her by now,” Fahle said.

Family members of Grace Hughes hug each other in front of the burned home on Detroit’s east side.

Just seen on Mother’s Day

Firefighters, responding to reports of a fire on the city’s east side about 1:15 a.m. Thursday, discovered Hughes’ body after putting out the fire.

She had suffered blunt-force trauma and her body had been burned in the blaze, said Detroit Officer Dan Donakowski. Homicide detectives remain investigating the case.

Family members had just seen Hughes on Mother’s Day. They asked where she was staying.

“I’m still on Parker Street,” she said.

Family members describe Hughes as a fighter who would’ve struggled with the person who killed her.

“She always had a knife on her,” Virginia Hughes said.

Family also say she was wary of strangers, and wouldn’t have opened her door for just anybody. They believe she knows the person who killed her.

But Hughes also had a softer side, which came out when she would help an elderly family on the block keep their yard maintained.

She also attended service every Sunday at Zion Hope Baptist Church, family said.

That home, once proudly owned by her parents, Leonard and Oralee Hughes, is where police say Hughes was stabbed to death before her body was burned inside.

‘All the memories are gone’

Former neighbors of the Hughes family recalled better days on Parker.

Karen Jones-Parrot grew up at 5074 Parker, which is now burned out and vacant. She left around 2000 and the family’s last presence there was about 2010, when her sister, Brenda Jones — not the Detroit City Council president — moved out.

Jones-Parrot’s mother died in that home. When it burned several months ago, she came back and cried.

“All the memories are gone,” she said.

John Hughes, 35, Gracie’s nephew, said the 5000 block of Parker used to be “the cream of the crop” in his earliest memories.

“Everybody worked; everybody had jobs,” he said.

The burned-out homes once stood tall. The empty fields used to be neighborhoods.

His grandparents — Leonard, who worked for Chrysler, and Oralee, who was a cook at Kettering High School, which her children and others in the neighborhood attended — were among those with jobs. Gracie was one of Leonard and Oralee’s 12 children, said Virginia Hughes. Seven are still alive.

But Leonard and Oralee aged, their children moved out, and the six-bedroom, three-bathroom home was too big for the empty nesters, so they downsized.

But Gracie Hughes wouldn’t leave. She spent her last days as a squatter in a home police officially recognize as vacant.

In a sense, that was the role the home had historically filled, John Hughes said.

“If anybody fell on hard times, you could always stay here,” he said. “You wouldn’t have to be homeless.”