New Detroit land bank CEO ready for ‘messy’ work

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Saskia Thompson doesn’t shy away from a challenge.

The urban planner stepped in as CEO of the Detroit Land Bank Authority in September to contend with its aging property portfolio amid a federal criminal probe into demolition efforts.

“I like big, messy complicated projects, and this fit the bill,” said Thompson, 48, who returned to her hometown of Detroit from Philadelphia, where she held a deputy role in finance.

“I wouldn’t come back for just any job,” she added. “The land bank is in a very unique position to make a huge difference in what Detroit looks like 15 years from now.”

Thompson was appointed to the $150,000-a-year post by the land bank’s board in July following a national search. Her early focus has been on improving the authority’s staffing structure, transparency and collaborating with city agencies on long-term plans for land use.

She replaces Carrie Lewand-Monroe, who announced her departure in March for private development work.

The North Rosedale Park native joins an agency that’s struggled to get its footing as it grew up quickly from just a handful of employees a few years ago to more than 130 today.

The land bank, which oversees blight elimination along with the Detroit Building Authority, has faced scrutiny over the city’s federally funded demolition work. The program, which has taken down nearly 13,000 blighted homes since May 2014, has been the focus of state, local and federal reviews after concerns were raised over bidding practices and spiraling costs.

In June, The Detroit News reported that a federal grand jury is focused on whether federal money was misappropriated while the city spent nearly $200 million to tear down homes after its bankruptcy.

As many as 30 contractors and city agencies are believed to have been subpoenaed to testify or provide documents, according to sources and documents. No charges have been filed.

Before accepting the position in Detroit, Thompson said she did “the standard Google research that anyone else would do, and it doesn’t look good.”

“But I’ve also been in this industry long enough to know that does not tell the full picture of what’s really going on,” she said. “Do I feel pressure on demolition? Absolutely. Do I think it’s the most pressure-filled part of this job? I don’t.”

Thompson said she won’t speak to the investigation, but she believes there’s a difference between learning a program as you go and actively doing it wrong.

“If I thought we’d actively been doing it wrong I might have thought differently about this job,” she said. “That’s not my perception.”

Thompson regards demolition as a snapshot of what the land bank is working on. Once the federal dollars are drawn down by the 2020 deadline, there will be other work to do, such as the auctioning of homes and finding new uses for vacant land, she said.

“We are more than the demolition program. I want to stress that more than anything else.”

The authority currently manages an inventory of about 95,000 properties — 30,000 blighted homes and 65,000 vacant lots. The land bank, she said, will continue unloading homes under its auction programs. It also will partner with city agencies on strategies for the property it owns that there’s no market for.

Thompson intends to step up efforts to inform the public about land bank programs as well.

“Our programs aren’t hidden. ... People need to know more about what we’re doing,” she said. “If I can accomplish nothing else over the first six months I want to fix that. I want us to be seen as a partner.”

Resident Tyson Gersh said the public, including himself, is quick to complain because of bad policy-making in the city over the years.

“You get jaded after so long, it’s your default to complain and be angry,” said Gersh, who has experienced frustration with the land bank over a lengthy effort to acquire properties that the nonprofit urban farm he co-founded occupies in the city’s north end.

Gersh hasn’t met Thompson yet but said he’s interested to see how her leadership unfolds.

“She comes from a radically progressive background and is well decorated in all the right fields,” he said.

Thompson formerly worked as deputy finance director in Philadelphia. While there, she served on the city’s planning commission and was the first executive director of the city’s Office of Property Data.

Among her tasks, Thompson helped oversee the reassessment of the city’s 570,000 parcels, a project unlike anything it had undertaken before, said Philadelphia Finance Director Rob Dubow.

“She made sure everything went along the way it should and that nothing fell through the cracks,” Dubow said.

The Cass Technical High School graduate earned a master’s degree in planning at the University of Michigan and spent time working in Detroit’s planning department and as a public policy assistant to former mayor Dennis Archer.

The land bank has had a string of high-ranking staff shakeups, including leadership of the demolition program.

Land bank demolition program director Rebecca Camago handed in her resignation in August to pursue “other opportunities.”

She’d been named director in mid-January, replacing Pura Bascos, who resigned. Days later, compliance manager Martha Delgado left the blight reduction program.

The land bank faces a tremendous challenge because of the enormous number of vacant properties it holds, said John Mogk, a Wayne State University law professor who follows Detroit development.

The quicker Detroit’s demolition program can move forward, he said, the better.

“My sense is that there’s a negative image but my sense is that it’s not a well deserved,” Mogk said. “Given that much of what they do is uncharted territory, I think they are performing quite well.”

Thompson said the land bank’s abrupt growth has had it “constantly being very reactive out of necessity.”

“We don’t have procedures in place for some things because we didn’t know we’d need one,” she said.

Thompson pointed to surging sales of city side lots, which have been more popular than anticipated. The land bank sold 300 alone in the month of September and more than 8,200 overall since the sale program launched in 2014.

Most land bank-owned property has been in some form of public ownership for decades.

The majority — or about 56 percent — entered public ownership in 2013 or earlier.

Additionally, 65 percent of land bank home purchases are being made by Detroit residents, new land bank analysis commissioned under Thompson shows.

“This notion that outsiders are taking over, the data just does not show that,” she said. “We are selling homes to Detroiters.”