Detroit reaches agreement to drop nuisance suit against controversial landowner

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city dropped its legal action against a controversial landowner after he committed to bringing his blighted properties up to code. 

Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia said the city on Wednesday voluntarily dismissed claims it filed Feb. 6 against Salameh Jaser.

The lawsuit was one of four filed against landowners who collectively own more than 1,000 properties that have been cited more than 1,800 times. The city, in the civil complaints, argued the property owners bought up large portfolios of real estate with no intention of occupying or improving them and was asking a Wayne County Circuit Court judge to declare the practice a nuisance.

The law department on Wednesday said the city and Jaser have reached an agreement since the lawsuit was filed that commits to fully registering his portfolio of properties by March 15.

The property owner intends to obtain certificates of compliance for 100 properties in 120 days and won't acquire any additional properties in his portfolio before the 2020 Wayne County auction, the law department noted.

"Mr. Jaser has instituted property management practices and procedures that are designed to minimize the time necessary to achieve compliance with the city code," the law department wrote. "Mr. Jaser is eager to demonstrate that he does not engage in the invest-and-neglect business model, and the City is eager to give Mr. Jaser the opportunity to prove the same."

Jaser told The News that he's going to complete everything laid out in the agreement to prove "I'm not a slumlord."

"I'm 100% behind doing what's right," said Jaser, who began acquiring property in Detroit in August 2018 and splits his time between Tennessee and Detroit. "At the end of the day, I want to work with the city. We’re working together and that’s the bottom line."

The city, in its lawsuit against Jaser, said he was 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. 

Jaser on Wednesday said he has ownership of properties throughout the city. He could not identify the specific dollar amount that he's been fined nor the specific amounts he's paid so far.

Garcia told The News that the law department will monitor Jaser's compliance. If he doesn't live up to the agreement, he'll be subject to court action, he said.

Besides Jaser, the city's lawsuits target investors Michael Kelly of Grosse Pointe Woods as well as father and son Steve and Stephen Hagerman of West Bloomfield Township for amassing thousands of tickets from city building safety inspectors and allowing properties to fall into disrepair. 

Garcia this month said the lawsuits mark the beginning of a new effort to address the "grave danger of lead in Detroit, among other housing-related issues."

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

In the suits, the city is asking 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. 

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

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. 

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

Last spring, Detroit made a deal with Kelly 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. The city has issued about 1,500 maintenance violations since 2001 related to Kelly's properties, including thousands of dollars in fines in late 2019, the lawsuit notes.

The Hagerman complaint contends that its ownership and companies account for more than 600 neglected properties and more than 250 violations in the last year. 

Garcia said thus far the Law Department has had no communication with Kelly or the Hagermans outside of court filings.