In August 2020, Spenser Harris thought he had found a great fixer-upper to eventually live in. The little cottage on Petoskey Street near the University of Detroit Mercy was on the same block where his grandmother lived.
The house was owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority and needed new plumbing, electrical work and several other repairs. But Harris is a landscaper who had started his own company and was ready to put in the work.
But one thing bothered him about the house: the disclaimer on the listing from the Land Bank. The agency manages thousands of vacant properties in the city, selling some in its aims to return them to productive use. The disclaimer warned that the Land Bank “has no knowledge of the condition, connection or operability of the water service line that would normally connect this property to the water main.”
So Harris called up the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). A representative told him the department had no record of the service line being cut or removed.
“Hearing that gave me more motivation to purchase the house,” Harris said.
Harris assumed DWSD was confirming that the service line was intact and bought the home for $3,000 in August 2020.
But after the purchase, when a technician from DWSD came to inspect the meter and turn on the water, Harris was told that there was a connection issue. He later found out the home lacked a service line entirely. Plumbers have given him quotes ranging from $9,000 to $15,000 to replace the line.
Harris and several other Land Bank buyers described similar attempts to do due diligence before purchasing their homes, only to be given misleading information by DWSD that has left them on the hook for thousands of dollars in unexpected repairs. For low-income buyers, those repairs pose a significant hurdle to pass before their homes will be livable — and put them at risk of losing their homes under their sales agreements with the Land Bank.
Their experiences raised additional concerns about the water department’s faulty records, which were already in question after an internal investigation found them to be unreliable.
Outlier Media reached out to DWSD multiple times to respond to claims, made by Harris and other Land Bank homebuyers, that the department had shared misleading information about properties’ water connection status. DWSD spokesperson Bryan Peckinpaugh declined to respond to specific instances and did not address whether or not DWSD was responsible for giving potential homebuyers bad information, saying only by email that the department is not responsible for issues that arise after purchase.
“For [Land Bank] houses listed ‘as-is’ … and there is no existing water service line, the new homeowner must hire a Master Plumber who will apply for a permit to install a new water service line at the homeowner’s cost,” Peckinpaugh wrote in an email.
Harris is currently living with friends in Clinton Township and hopes to earn enough money to pay for service line replacement by the end of the year.
“I never would have bought the house”
Previous reporting by Outlier showed DWSD also provided inaccurate information to dozens of Land Bank home purchasers about the status of water lines due to poor record-keeping. After an internal investigation revealed the unreliability of the DWSD’s data on water lines, the Land Bank stopped providing that information on its listings, instead opting in July 2020 for a standard disclaimer and agreeing to pay for service line replacement for anyone who got inaccurate information before they changed the disclaimer and ended up with a house that couldn’t get water service.
But according to multiple people who reached out to Outlier, DWSD, unlike the Land Bank, continued to give out misleading information after July 2020 and was still doing so as recently as six months ago. DWSD knew its records about service lines were unreliable, but potential buyers of Land Bank homes did not. Some of those buyers were told by DWSD that the agency had “no record” of a service line being cut and reasonably assumed the houses actually had working service lines. DWSD never explained that the agency had known it had problems with its record-keeping, several buyers told Outlier.
DWSD did not directly address questions from Outlier about whether it told buyers if there was no record of the line being removed.
“If someone contacted DWSD and we provided misinformation prior to the purchase, then we will assess this on a case-by-case basis,” Peckingpaugh said. “The customer will have to provide proof that they were misinformed.”
In December, Louise Adams, 53, bought a Land Bank house north of I-94 on the east side for $1,200. Similar to Harris, she called DWSD before buying the house to ask about the service line.
“They told me they didn’t have any record that it had been cut,” she said.
But when a technician came to turn on the water, nothing happened. There was no service line. Plumbers have quoted her between $6,000 and $12,000 for the work.
“I’m low-income. That’s a lot of money for somebody like me,” Adams said. “I never would have bought the house if I knew getting water would cost this much.”
Adams, Harris and two others who spoke with Outlier said they called the department but didn’t record the conversation or get the information in writing.
At risk of losing the home
The buyers have had no luck confronting DWSD about the errors and getting assistance from the department.
“I called the department about 20 times,” Harris said. “Everything was inconclusive. They had no notes, no records. They were basically saying, ‘We made mistakes but we’re not responsible for them.’”
These buyers face losing their homes entirely if they cannot earn or raise the thousands of dollars needed to reconnect the water. The Land Bank requires homes to be in compliance and pass an inspection six months after purchase, which includes having running water. Homes that are not in compliance can be repossessed. The agency often provides extensions if buyers can prove they’re making steady improvements.
Brittnee Johnson-Clingman wanted to own a home after leaving an emotionally abusive relationship. She thought she was on her way when she won a Land Bank auction for her house on the far east side of Detroit for $6,200 in February 2021.
She, too, said she called DWSD prior to closing and was told the department had no record of the line being cut at the house. Before later finding out she had no service line, she had already spent thousands of dollars on new internal plumbing, a hot water tank, cabinets and more. Now she’s nervous about losing the house.
“I don’t want to lose my house because I couldn’t get it fixed up in time,” Johnson-Clingman said. “I really hope I’ll be able to do it.”
She says the Land Bank recently gave her a two-month extension to get the water turned on.
Land Bank spokesperson Alyssa Strickland said the buyers who contacted Outlier were currently in compliance.
“Our Compliance program already grants extensions to any property owner who continues to make progress on their renovation and stay in communication with their Compliance rep., so those impacted by water line issues are already covered under our standard Compliance practice,” she wrote to Outlier by email. “The best thing property owners can do if the water line is delaying their ability to finish the renovation is to notify their Compliance rep. and request an extension.”
Harris hopes to not only renovate his home for himself, but also take some equity out so he could afford to help his grandmother with repairs on her home. He thinks of his project as a small catalyst to rebuilding their block of Petoskey Street.
“I’ve lived in the city pretty much my whole life,” Harris said. “I want people in Detroit to believe that our neighborhoods can look just as good as those across 8 Mile.
“I don’t know why the city is making this so hard for people like me,” he added.
Reach AARON MONDRY at email@example.com or 313-403-7221. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.