Alleged rent-shaming riles Brightmoor residents

Aaron Mondry
Special to The Detroit News
At a meeting, Brightmoor Homes residents tied red balloons to chairs with complaints written on them.

In early September, Tracey Curry came home to her house in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood to discover a red balloon tied to her door.

Confused, she called her property management company, KMG Prestige. At first she thought it might an award for her lawn being so neat. Instead she learned the balloon was there to let her, and the entire neighborhood, know her rent was late.

“I’m on a fixed income. I’m always late on rent,” Curry said.

And she wasn’t the only one — several residents of the Brightmoor Homes development had similar notices placed on their doors or mailboxes that month.

“They’re humiliating people and that’s not right,” Curry said. “I keep their property very nice. I didn’t think it was right.”

Joseph Tandy, regional vice president at KMG Prestige, said that the red balloons are one of many methods it uses to notify residents of an urgent need to contact the office.

“We didn’t mean to cause shame or embarrassment,” he said. “It was more of a ‘we need to speak to someone right away. ‘”

Tandy also said that he wasn’t aware of the practice in this particular instance, but “upon finding out, (we) discontinued it immediately.”

But the red balloons are among many indignities Brightmoor Homes tenants say they’ve experienced from both KMG and the developer.

When construction began on the 190-home development nearly 20 years ago, the developer, Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Development, billed Brightmoor Homes as an affordable rent-to-own model financed by the city of Detroit and federal low-income housing tax credits.

The concept was that when the 15-year tax credits expired, residents would be offered to purchase the house for an affordable price.

But the 2008 housing crash left the project deeply in debt, meaning residents now had to pay much more money if they wanted to buy their house. As a result, most if not all Brightmoor Homes residents are still renting, although the city of Detroit has a new pilot program underway to encourage their transition to homeownership.

KMG Prestige manages many properties throughout Michigan for private developers as well as 32 low-income multi-unit properties for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. It took over management of Brightmoor Homes in 2005.

According to residents, the red balloons are just part of an overall pattern of communication that is abrupt and inconsiderate.

If residents don’t pay by the 5th of every month, they get a $50 late fee. And if they don’t pay by the 16th, they get a notice to appear in court where they also have to pay a $150 court fee, which is billed back to the resident.

Angela Shorts, who has been a Brightmoor Homes tenant for two years, says when she’s late on rent, she tries to give KMG advance warning and a reason why. “But they have no sympathy,” Shorts said. “It’s due now or you get a late fee and then see you in court.

“My overall experience with management sucks, to be honest.”

In recent months, some tenants say they have been charged rent increases of up to $200 without notice or explanation. Tandy said residents are being given a minimum 30-day notice for rent changes. Residents also say they’re being given only 24 hours’ notice before a home inspection.

They’re also billed excessive amounts for contracted labor — one tenant says she was charged $300 to have the grass cut and some vegetation removed near a window air conditioning unit. KMG says it’s just charging what the contractor bills for work.

“If a resident is not properly maintaining their lawn/landscaping causing Brightmoor homes to contact a contractor to address, the resident is billed an amount equal to the contractor invoice,” Tandy said.

All these charges must be paid by residents in one of Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods. Rates of poverty are higher and median income is lower in Brightmoor than the city at large. The vast majority of Brightmoor Homes tenants are African-American single mothers.

On top of the additional financial strains, tenants say the homes are in need of imminent repairs and that maintenance work is done hastily and poorly.

At a public meeting on Oct. 24 between residents and representatives from KMG Prestige, Northwest Detroit Neighborhood Development and the city of Detroit, residents spoke about windows falling out of frames, air conditioning and furnace units not fixed, flooded basements not drained for weeks, water damage on ceilings, black mold growing in bathrooms. One tenant showed a picture of her wall separating from its post and letting in daylight.

Tandy said that in the near future, KMG will have tenants call in work orders to a recorded line that regional managers can oversee.

“Our goal is to have the residents report property issues to us,” he said. “And if they don’t get addressed then the regional manager, or maybe I need to get involved.”

The situation has become so acrimonious that the city of Detroit and Councilman James Tate, who represents the district, have stepped in.

“I’ve heard a number of these complaints over time. Why has it taken so long to respond?” Tate asked representatives from KMG at the October meeting. Later, he added, “That shows incredible disrespect for someone who lives in your property.”

Mondry writes for Outlier Media, a Detroit-based service journalism organization.