Joe Belanger knew he’d have a few problems fixing up the old house he bought from the Detroit Land Bank Authority. But he’s a professional builder and could do most of the work himself. Now it’s been three years and Belanger is out of money because both the Land Bank and city’s water department haven’t paid for their mistakes.
Belanger’s house in the Chadsey Condon neighborhood should have had a working water line when he bought it in 2020 — it didn’t. The city should have paid to replace the line — it didn’t. Repairs to his water and sewer lines cost more than $25,000. If Belanger doesn’t make those repairs, the Land Bank won’t give him the deed for the house. Without the deed, he can’t sell it and make any of those investments back.
“It just smacks of a scam,” Belanger said. “Nobody in Detroit has much money, and people don’t understand the costs.”
Belanger is 57 and a licensed contractor who’s lived in Detroit for years and has decades of experience as a builder. These skills could make him an ideal candidate to buy one of the dilapidated homes the Land Bank regularly sells. But his finances don’t, because the house has become more expensive than he bargained for. He invests all the money he makes back into this house, where he now lives. The house now has running water but still doesn’t have a sewer connection. It’s been a constant struggle for him to make his Land Bank house a home and get the assistance the city has given for other buyers.
“I’m a professional, and I couldn’t navigate it,” Belanger said.
He’s hardly alone. Outlier Media routinely fields text messages, calls and emails from Land Bank homebuyers dealing with water and sewer line connection issues. In some cases, the buyers knew there could be a problem but bought the house anyway, without fully realizing just how expensive replacing water and sewer lines can be. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) gave other buyers reason to believe they wouldn’t have water or sewer line problems. Buyers relied on that information.
All the buyers who reached out to Outlier reporters say they aren’t getting the support from the city they need to make informed decisions or get these houses fully renovated.
Since 2014, the Land Bank has sold more than 13,000 homes, most of which need major work. It plans to sell another 2,000 as part of Mayor Mike Duggan’s blight removal plan. Plenty of Land Bank homes move back and forth between the city’s demolition list and the group of properties for sale by the Land Bank. DWSD sometimes severs the water line as a preliminary step ahead of demolition, but buyers often don’t know this.
Outlier previously reported that because of poor record keeping DWSD doesn’t know which homes are connected to the water main. DWSD continued to tell Land Bank homebuyers whether or not water lines had been cut, despite knowing that information was unreliable, as recently as last year.
People who spoke with Outlier bought homes thinking they were connected to the water main, only to find out DWSD had cut the line.
If buyers don’t get the water running, they risk losing the home. Land Bank buyers have to be in compliance with that agency’s rules six months after closing to get the deed to the home. Those rules include having running water, a working furnace, hot water heater, electricity, bathroom and kitchen. The Land Bank regularly gives deadline extensions if buyers show progress. But without the deeds, these initial buyers can’t sell their homes, even if they’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars into them. Land Bank spokesperson Stephanie Hume said it takes back around 10% of homes due to noncompliance.
The City of Detroit believes the agencies do a good job getting information to buyers and fixing issues when that information is inaccurate.
“DWSD and the Land Bank have worked out an arrangement that is fair and, overall, has been effective in addressing these concerns,” said John Roach, the city’s director of media relations.
Christine Turner is worried about losing her home. The online listing for the home she bought in October 2020 was confusing. It had a disclaimer in bright red print stating the Land Bank “does not have knowledge as to the status of the water service line on this property.” But an information box about the property on the top of the page included the phrase: “Water Line Cut.” The Land Bank put “No” in the box.
Turner said a DWSD technician came out to install the meter last year and couldn’t find the service line. The water department had already removed it.
Turner is a waitress. She said her credit rating is bad, so buying and fixing up a Land Bank house is the only way she thought she would ever become a homeowner. So far, Turner has invested $20,000. Getting a new $10,000 water line would be an enormous investment for her, and she doesn’t want to spend any more money if the Land Bank will end up taking her house back.
“I’m a working-class person. I don’t have money to just throw away,” Turner said. “The idea of losing a $20,000 investment when I’ve never even held that much money in my hand is incredibly distressing.”
Turner hopes the city’s lead service line replacement program will accept her and cover the cost of replacing the water line. Until then, she’s stalling for time and renting another place in Detroit.
Waiting for help
The listing for Belanger’s house on the Land Bank’s website said the water line hadn’t been cut, so he didn’t think he’d have any trouble getting running water. But when a DWSD technician came out to install a meter in 2021, the water didn’t work. The technician broke the news he’d have to get the service line replaced.
The Land Bank and DWSD have known about this expensive and common issue facing buyers. During a brief window in 2020 from June 1 and July 15, the two agencies shared information about water line status and put it on home listings. But the information was faulty and dozens of homebuyers complained after finding out they had no service line. Listings on the Land Bank’s website now have a standard disclaimer saying the authority has no knowledge of the water line’s status and that it can cost $10,000 or more to replace it.
Belanger’s home was one of the 650 sold during this time period.
The Land Bank and DWSD said they would pay people who bought homes during this time for water line replacement. But Belanger has not been able to get any money back and the water department isn’t helping.
“These cases have all been resolved,” said DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh.
After Outlier reached out about Belanger’s situation, Hume of the Land Bank said they would look into his case to see if he’s eligible for reimbursement.
Outlier regularly inquires with these agencies on behalf of homebuyers. DWSD’s poor record keeping has been the primary cause of buyers’ distress, but the department has largely been unwilling to help. The Land Bank has offered assistance in limited cases and has shown lenience with compliance, most homebuyers told Outlier.
An expensive repair
Homebuyers have sometimes found the true cost of water line replacement more expensive than advertised. Gerlande Paul lives in Philadelphia and bought her house from the Land Bank in 2019 as a place to vacation and visit friends in the city.
Everything is finally finished, except for the water.
The listing on Paul’s house stated that the water line was cut, and she assumed she’d have to pay around $10,000 to get it replaced. It will be much more expensive than that.
Paul’s service line is missing all the way up to the water main. Normally homeowners are responsible for the water line up until the stop box (a valve with surface-level access that allows water to be shut off). Replacing the last section — from the stop box to the water main — involves digging up the alley or, in Paul’s case, the street. That makes it more expensive and time-consuming because contractors have to pull more permits.
Peckinpaugh said homeowners are only responsible for this section when the service line doesn’t exist at the time they buy the house from the Land Bank or a private seller. This information isn’t explicitly stated on Land Bank listings.
Outlier spoke with Paul’s plumber who said the work would cost at least $25,000.
“I don’t have enough money to finish it,” Paul said. “[The Land Bank] sends me email after email saying I need to show running water, but I can’t show them anything.”
Between a rock and a service line
Belanger could have gotten a new service line another way, but he said relying on DWSD cost him that opportunity. His house was built around 1900 and Belanger thought he might have a lead service line. The city is incrementally replacing all lead service lines in the city. But Belanger said a DWSD technician told him he didn’t have a lead service line.
When Belanger decided to bite the bullet and pay for a replacement, he said contractors found that the line was in fact made of lead. He said he called DWSD to request inspection of the pipe while it was dug out but got nowhere.
“They just said, ‘There’s nobody to send to you,” Belanger said. “So I gave up.”
Peckinpaugh said there’s nothing the city can do at this point. DWSD pays homeowners for lead service line replacements upfront but doesn’t reimburse after the work has already finished.
Belanger found out this year that he’ll also need to replace the sewer line to his home — yet another issue that wasn’t stated on the listing. Homeowners in Detroit are responsible for the entire sewer line leading up to the city’s collection pipe. Often the connection point is in the alley, but in Belanger’s case it’s in the street — more permits, more expenses.
The work is likely going to cost him $17,000 he doesn’t have.
The Land Bank has so far been patient, Belanger said. But he doesn’t know how much longer that will last. In the meantime, he’s going to have to spend the winter without a working toilet.
“I’m going to be pooping into a bucket the whole winter,” Belanger said, “and crossing my fingers that someone has the power to fix this.”