HGTV star Nicole Curtis sues Detroit land bank over rundown house

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — HGTV star Nicole Curtis is suing the Detroit Land Bank arguing it took advantage of her when it took the deed to a house she'd sunk $60,000 into rehabbing.

Curtis, a Lake Orion native featured in the show "Rehab Addict Rescue," filed the suit Friday in Wayne County Circuit Court arguing she's entitled to ownership of the property — based on her substantial investment and belief that she'd owned it — or the land bank should compensate her. 

IN: "Rehab Addict Rescue." Lake Orion native Nicole Curtis's new show premieres Jan. 28 on HGTV and will feature homeowners trying to rehab their own historic homes.

Curtis' Detroit Renovations LLC purchased the 1921 foursquare at 451 E. Grand Boulevard from a private owner for $17,000 in 2017. The next year, Curtis was notified that the Detroit Land Bank Authority actually held the property title.

Failed attempts to reach a mutual agreement for Curtis to rehab the house led to court actions. Ultimately, an August judgment was issued in the land bank's favor. 

The lawsuit says Curtis bought the house with the intention of spending "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on restoring it,and that she kept it maintained, insured and paid off back taxes.

Her investment, the lawsuit says, significantly increased the value of the property over the next few years. As a result, the suit alleges, the land bank will "directly benefit from years of labor, expertise, and money" that Curtis' business put into the house and wishes to "reap the rewards flowing from the significantly increased property value." 

Despite efforts over the past month by Curtis' legal team to reach an agreement on the property, the land bank put the house on the market Feb. 26 for $40,000. 

Curtis on Friday told The News that she invested the money into the house in good faith and wants it back. She said she was told by the land bank Friday that she'd have to bid on the house. She then reached out to the Realtor to receive the offer package. 

"I have to protect it. They already have the house listed for sale," Curtis said. "We thought we were negotiating a resolve for this."

Land Bank Executive Director Saskia Thompson has said that the authority disagrees with Curtis' claims that the property was taken from her. 

"She never owned the house. If she has any legal cause of action, it's not against us," Thompson told The News on Monday. "We're not the ones that took money from her for that property. Someone else did when they no longer owned it."

Alyssa Strickland, a spokeswoman for the land bank, said late Friday that the authority hadn't yet been served with the lawsuit. But Strickland reiterated that the land bank has prevailed in court on matters related to the home. 

This house on East Grand Boulevard was purchased by HGTV star Nicole Curtis, but the land bank says the seller didn't have title to the property.

"We've already won two separate legal actions about this property. We consider the litigation closed," said Strickland, adding that the land bank was awarded the property title last year. "She's welcome to make an offer on the property. We expect anyone who makes an offer on the property to follow the same process that we hold all of our buyers to."

Curtis' lawsuit contends the land bank knew or should have known that she was spending money to safeguard the house yet failed to take action to enforce its legal interest in the home for more than two years.

Curtis relied on this failure, the lawsuit alleges, to continue to believe that her title was lawful. Detroit Renovations, the suit argues, had an equitable mortgage on the property because Curtis purchased it via a quit claim deed and from the time she acquired it on May 30, 2017, until as late as May 15, 2020, she believed she had a valid title. Under that belief, she undertook substantial improvements. 

She did so, the complaint alleges, "with the knowledge and consent of the defendant.”

Curtis is asking the court to rule she has an equitable mortgage based on her years-long belief that she'd owned the house and her investments in preserving and protecting it. It would be “unjust and inequitable” for the land bank to retain the benefits without compensating Curtis for what she’s invested, the lawsuit contends. 

The land bank originally filed a nuisance lawsuit in 2015 against the prior property owners, Jerome and Joyce Cauley, to compel them to renovate the blighted house. The Cauleys failed to meet their commitments. In January 2017, it was ordered that the property title be transferred to the land bank.

Even so, Joyce Cauley executed a quit claim deed for the house to Curtis' Detroit Renovations LLC that spring. Numbers listed for Joyce Cauley were disconnected.

Land bank officials said the invalid deed was discovered in early 2018 and an attempt was then made to reach a resolution to allow Curtis' work to go forward. The property remained in a holding pattern for two years.

In July, the land bank filed a lawsuit to resolve the outstanding title issue. The land bank prevailed and sought a separate court order that required the property be vacated by Feb. 12. 

Curtis said she's not aware of anyone other investors that would take on restorations at the same scale without grant or city funding or other incentives. 

"I didn't become so successful in business by being somebody who backs down," she said. "Going through this little escapade with the land bank, if they think they'll stop me from being proud of my city and investing in it, hell no."