Detroit sues controversial land owners, citing neglected properties

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city filed lawsuits on Thursday against several controversial land owners who collectively own more than 1,000 properties that have been cited more than 1,800 times. 

Detroit officials say that four property owners bought up large portfolios of real estate with no intention of occupying or improving them, and is asking Wayne County Circuit Court to declare the practice a nuisance. 

The lawsuits target investors Michael Kelly of Grosse Pointe Woods; father and son Steve and Stephen Hagerman of West Bloomfield; and Salameh Jaser of Dearborn for amassing thousands of tickets from city building safety inspectors and allowing their properties to fall into disrepair. 

“Our lawsuits mark the beginning of a new effort to address the grave danger of lead in Detroit, among other housing related issues,” Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said in a statement. “They have demonstrated no respect for the safety of the persons living on their land, and their business model presents an unreasonable danger to the renting public in Detroit. Detroit’s citizens deserve better.”

The properties feature overgrown gardens, dilapidated fences, cracked windows and broken doors; and unsafe and unsanitary plumbing, according to the lawsuits.

Representatives for the men could not immediately be determined.

In the suits, the city asks the court to compel the owners to properly maintain their properties and prohibit them from directly or indirectly purchasing or controlling additional properties until they come into compliance. 

Detroit contends that four property owners bought up large portfolios of real estate with no intention of occupying or improving them, and is asking Wayne County Circuit Court to declare the practice a nuisance.

Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit's Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair also Thursday issued what they called a rare joint Declaration of Public Nuisance over "invest and neglect" speculator and landlords "who put children at risk of lead poisoning," officials said.

Under city code and state law, the city's public health director and mayor may declare any business or property a public nuisance, officials said. 

“When a child is exposed to lead, irreversible damage is done. Their ability to learn, talk, hear and grow is at risk,” Fair said. “At the Detroit Health Department, we are an advocate for reducing lead in homes. It is so important that the city of Detroit continues to hold landlords accountable to ensure that a family’s basic right to safe and secure housing is not violated." 

The declaration notes that thousands of Detroit children have elevated blood lead levels as a result of living in properties with lead. 

“Federal, state and local laws require property owners to take precautions to protect against childhood lead exposure," the declaration said. "Many landlords do not comply with these laws, and the failure to abate lead hazards has created this crisis.”

Kelly is targeted in the suit after the city made a deal with the controversial land owner last spring to forgive nearly $1.3 million in property tax debt and fines, along with likely thousands more in blight tickets, for land needed for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's $1.6 billion expansion on the city's east side. 

Kelly, who owns Detroit Property Exchange Company, Homes of Detroit LLC and numerous other business entities, controls or possesses more than 500 properties in Detroit, according to the lawsuit. 

According to the filing, the city has issued about 1,500 maintenance violations since 2001 related to Kelly's properties. In the last months of 2019,the fines amounted to thousands of dollars. 

The lawsuit targeting Jasper said he's responsible for more than 300 properties among numerous entities. The city issued more than 100 violations to Jasper's companies last year for thousands of dollars.

Likewise, the Hagerman complaint contends that its ownership and companies account for more than 600 neglected properties and have racked up more than 250 violations in the last year.