Ilitch-owned apartments near LCA pile up blight tickets

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
Bretton Hall apartment building.

Three apartment buildings owned by the Ilitch family organization in the shadow of Little Caesars Arena have received nearly two dozen blight tickets in less than two years for violations that include rodent infestation, failure to inspect for lead paint and dangerous living conditions.

One of the buildings, which are all on the same block of Henry Street, was shut months ago after the roof partially collapsed.

One block east of the apartments is the state-of-the-art $863 million sports and entertainment complex named after the Ilitch-owned Little Caesars pizza chain, built with the help of $324 million in taxpayer money. Last year, the venue became the home ice for the Ilitch-owned Detroit Red Wings professional hockey team. 

The apartments on the 400 block of Henry Street have become a symbol to critics that the Ilitch organization is intent on pushing out long-time residents of the once-faded neighborhood and destroying much of the historical character of the area by tearing down multiple buildings. 

The four-story apartments with a total of 98 units are among a dwindling number of rental properties near the arena that are affordable to low-income residents. Residents pay $300 to $400 a month and don't have leases.

A dirty, cockroach-infested sink in a hallway of Bretton Hall, the low-rent apartments owned by an entity linked to the billionaire owners of the Detroit Red Wings and Little Caesars pizza. The Henry Street apartment building is one block from the Little Caesars Arena.

"I had to throw out my couch a couple months ago because it had too many bugs," said Grady Bishop, 57.  He's rented a Henry Street apartment for five years, which means he lived in the building before it was sold to an entity linked to the Ilitches in October 2016.  "The old owner used to spray the place for bugs and keep the place up. Now the upkeep — there ain't really no regular upkeep."

The fates of the tenants and the buildings are in limbo after the Ilitch family's Olympia Development of Michigan in July lost a months-long effort to gain city permission to tear down the properties and build one large commercial building.

A used, broken mattress blocks the back stairway of the Bretton Hall, the low-rent apartments owned by an entity linked to the billionaire owners of the Detroit Red Wings and Little Caesars pizza. The Henry Street apartment building is one block from the Little Caesars Arena.

A representative for Olympia declined comment for this story, referring questions to the management company hired to oversee the properties. That company, Elite Property Management in Southfield, declined to discuss specifics, but emailed a statement.

“As property manager, we have taken significant steps to improve the maintenance and safety of the Henry Street properties," wrote Elite Property Management's Kim Hagood. "The few remaining maintenance items are expected to be resolved soon. In my many years of experience, these types of repairs and maintenance items are not uncommon, given the extremely poor condition of the properties that existed at the time of purchase.”

Berwin apartment on Henry Street in Detroit.

The contrast of the shimmering arena and the deteriorating apartments illustrates the dual narratives swirling around the billionaire family's plan to overhaul 50 blocks on the northern edge of downtown. That plan, called District Detroit, was central to easing public concerns about giving $324 million in taxpayer money to the wealthy Ilitch organization to build a new sports arena. The Ilitch organization has invested $1.4 billion in office, retail and other developments in the 50-block district, company officials said.

The apartments are surrounded by new parking lots owned by the Ilitch organization for crowds attending events at the 20,000-seat arena and the Ilitch-owned Fox Theatre a few blocks away. The lots also serve fans of the Ilitch-owned Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.

On Tuesday, family matriarch Marian Ilitch and her son Christopher Ilitch attended the ribbon-cutting of the $59 million Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business that's next to the arena. The Ilitches contributed $40 million to build the facility, named after the late family patriarch. Enrollment at the business school has jumped by 30 percent, or over 4,000 students, since plans were announced in 2015 to build the new school downtown, replacing the business school at Wayne State's main campus in Midtown. 

Lead, rodent problems

In October 2016, an entity called Cass Village Apartments LLC purchased the three Henry Street apartment complexes, along with one other building on Henry, for $8.1 million. In July, Olympia Development publicly disclosed it was the true owner of the properties. The admission by the real-estate arm of the Ilitch organization was necessary because it was attempting to gain City Council approval to tear them down.

The apartment buildings have deteriorated and become roach-infested since changing ownership hands in 2016, according to city records and interviews with apartment residents and others familiar with them. Two of the buildings were cited by the city for not being properly inspected for lead paint.  

From an Olympia Development parking lot, the now-shuttered Claridge apartment building is seen, at right.

The Claridge apartment building at 459 Henry was closed last year by the Ilitches after a partial roof collapse. The Claridge received 11 blight tickets from September 2017 to April 2018, according to city records. The tickets included rodent infestation; failure to properly install wiring or electrical equipment; and failure to deal with an "emergency and imminent danger." That ticket doesn't specify the danger, and officials say the description can cover multiple issues.

Another ticket was due to "failure to obtain a lead clearance," which refers to the potential of the toxic element commonly found in old paint. Nine of the 11 tickets were later dismissed on a technicality because the officer described the building as occupied, when, in fact, it was already vacant due to the roof collapse, according to city officials. 

The two remaining tickets that resulted in a total of $620 fines were due to failing "to obtain a certificate of compliance," which can mean issues in the building remain unresolved. 

The Claridge, like the other two apartment buildings owned by the Ilitch-linked entity, were rarely ticketed or fined under the previous owner, according to city records dating back to 2004. The previous owner of the three apartments, Peter Mercier, was ticketed three times over 12 years, twice resulting in fines, records show.

"Those three apartments used to be the center of a little community on Henry Street," said Patrick Dorn, executive director of Cass Corridor Neighborhood Development Corp., a nonprofit that owns and manages several affordable housing apartment buildings in the area. The previous owner of the Henry Street apartments had "a good reputation" for maintaining them, said Dorn, who has lived in the Cass Corridor since 1968.

Dirt and roaches

In early August at Bretton Hall, located at 439 Henry, the janitor sinks in the hallways were caked with dirt; one had cockroaches. A broken mattress blocked the rear stairway. One of the apartment doors had fluorescent tape warning "Danger Live Wire."  

The Ilitches have been fined four times for blight at Bretton Hall, including twice for "failing to comply with an emergency or imminent danger order concerning an unsafe or unsanitary structure or unlawful occupancy."  Another violation was due to  "unlawful occupation of rental property without lead clearance." The fines totaled $2,370. Two other tickets were dismissed. 

An apartment door in Bretton Hall, 439 Henry Street, is marked with fluorescent tape declaring 'Danger Live Wire' on Wednesday, August 1 .

At the Berwin, at 489 Henry, the hallways were poorly lit. Floors and stairways were dusty and dotted with trash. 

The Berwin has been hit with fines totaling $2,450 for three blight violations. Two of the violations were for not dealing with an emergency or imminent danger; the other for not obtaining a certificate of compliance. Three other blight tickets were dismissed. 

Raising razing hurdles

The planned demolition of the block has met resistance from preservationists who successfully lobbied the city to create a new historic district that included the Henry Street buildings.

In July, the City Council approved the Cass-Henry Historic District. A historic district doesn't prevent structures from being demolished, but it does create bureaucratic hurdles to get a plan approved. 

From inside the fenced in Olympia Development parking lot, two apartments are visible (from left) Berwin, Claridge. Claridge is now shut down and both have been fined repeatedly by the City of Detroit for blight violations. Both are essentially Ilitch-owned.

Since the July ruling, Olympia Development officials have not said whether they will continue to try to gain approval for the tear-downs. Preservationists say they will continue to push back against such efforts.

"I will fight any and all demolitions that Olympia Development proposes," said Richard Etue, a long-time Cass Corridor resident who is on a neighborhood advisory committee that deals with Ilitch plans for the area. "We don't need more parking lots. The walkable neighborhood with active restaurants and retail around the arena with year-round activities has not materialized because Olympia doesn't want it to."

Meanwhile, the number of people living in the Henry Street apartments is declining. According to multiple residents, each time a tenant moves out, that apartment is not rented again.

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN