Patricia Cortner, 63, on the porch of her East Davison Village home. All photos by Nick Hagen.

Patricia Cortner, 63, has witnessed the steady deterioration of East Davison Village, where she was born, raised and still lives. Many families moved elsewhere by choice or were foreclosed on by the county for delinquent taxes. Today, in the neighborhood at the corner of I-75 and Davison freeways just north of Hamtramck, only about 50% of the homes still standing are occupied.

“My spirit has been depressed. I want this torn down, cleaned up,” Cortner said, pointing to a dilapidated house across the street from her own. 

The largest landowner in the neighborhood is the City of Detroit through the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a quasi-public agency that seemed poised to help. The city’s own Planning and Development Department recommended selling the majority of the vacant parcels (493) to residents and community groups after a 2019 study found “nearly two-thirds of all properties” in the neighborhood—more than 700 parcels—were owned by the Land Bank.

The Land Bank is not just the largest property owner in East Davison Village. At one point, it owned about 20% of all single-family homes in the city, many of which it possessed through foreclosure caused by overinflated taxes

But longtime residents of East Davison Village say the Land Bank is not following through on providing more property to people who have stuck with the neighborhood through tough times. Instead, properties they hoped to acquire are being sold to newcomers with greater access to resources. 

Meanwhile, property values have shot up in recent years. The city found that the average sales price of homes in the area nearly doubled between January 2017 and July 2018, from $23,600 to $41,250. In June alone this year, multiple homes have sold in East Davison Village for more than $100,000. 

As a result, residents who already own homes in the neighborhood could see their own home’s value increase. But they wanted more.

“There was a lot promised,” Cortner said. “Other people got their stuff, and we didn’t get anything.” 

Shut out

The promises Cortner feels were made by the city were really recommendations by the Planning and Development Department as part of a study in 2019 on a broader area that included Banglatown and neighborhoods around Jayne Field, a 65-acre park with a recreation center, to the east. The 123-page framework plan called for streetscape improvements, upgrades to Jayne Field and redevelopment of commercial buildings on key corridors like Conant Street. The American Institute of Architects wrote that the plan “set a new standard for what residents should expect from the planning process.” 

The city has followed through on several of the projects, including streetscaping on Conant and Joseph Campau streets, improvements to Jayne Field and clearing of a few meadows. The city says construction will begin soon on a cut-through on Meade Street to improve east-west access.

Streetscaping on Jos Campau.

With its framework plan, the city set itself an ambitious task: stabilize a disinvested neighborhood while also getting land and housing back in the hands of community members who have few resources and plenty of skepticism.

The streetscaping and “community spaces”—essentially cleared fields with a few primitive benches—have not impressed residents of East Davison Village. Several said they aren’t within easy walking distance of Jayne Field and rarely go there. 

“The plan’s impact was miniscule,” said Latrina Conaway, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. “It was just enough for everyone to chew on for a little bit then realize there was no nourishment.”

Instead, residents said they desperately need money to fix up their homes, most of which are nearly 100 years old. But the plan didn’t call for any money to be allocated to home repair. 

Derreck Sturgis, 66, needs to repair his front and back porches, as well as his garage. But he’s on a fixed income and doesn’t have the money to do it all. 

“There’s no money available to help me,” Sturgis said. “All the homes owned by people that have been here all these years—what are they supposed to do?”

Residents have also been keen to acquire vacant property, especially since the residential market was improving. And the plan had clear objectives around vacant property, stating the city should: “Get as many vacant parcels and rehabbed homes into the hands of residents as possible, especially current residents who have been stewarding the land for years.” 

An abandoned home across the street from Patricia Cortner’s home on Lawley Street.

Eric Hendley, 40, has also lived in the neighborhood his entire life. He’s in a back-and-forth with the Land Bank about his uncle’s former home on Dearing Street. After his uncle died in the early 2000s, his cousin became the owner. But the house went into tax foreclosure in 2016, then on the city’s demolition list. Hendley called the Land Bank, got the house successfully removed from the list and decided to invest in it. 

He replaced the windows, doors, plumbing and electrical systems, added a new front porch and cleaned out the piles of debris that had been dumped in the house. 

“I rehabbed the house, spent a lot of money and man hours getting this house together,” Hendley said. 

But he never bought the house. In 2017, he moved in, despite not being the owner, because he didn’t have a place to stay and desperately wanted to fix up a piece of his family’s history. The next year, he did begin the process of purchasing the house from the Land Bank, but he couldn’t produce the right paperwork to prove a prior connection to the home. 

While he was initially asked to move out, Land Bank spokesperson Alyssa Strickland said they’re currently looking for a nonprofit that can purchase the home and put Hendley on “a path to housing stability.” She added that he is “currently not facing any removal action.”

But Hendley, who doesn’t pay property taxes or fees to the Land Bank, feels he’s earned the right to purchase the home. 

“They were going to tear it down,” he said. “Now they’re telling me I may have to bid on this against somebody?”

The Planning Department also encouraged residents to submit proposals for bigger projects on city-owned property. 

In 2020, seven residents, including Patricia Cortner, put together a cooperative purchasing proposal for nine homes, which they hoped to renovate incrementally and rent out to low-income tenants. The group proposed paying $1,000 per home and said it could demonstrate proof of funds for initial repair work. Soon after, the Land Bank told them none were available for purchase, but later put the majority of those properties up for public sale. 

“Why ask us what properties we want in our neighborhood if the disposition strategy had already been made?” said Emily Saugitis, who was part of the cooperative purchasing proposal and who is a coordinator with the local urban farm Bandhu Gardens. “Now we’re completely priced out.”

Two of the homes in that proposal on Halleck Street recently sold at auction in June for $78,600 and $55,100

Elsewhere, the city has struggled with communication. An Outlier Media review of emails sent to residents showed that the city informed residents of a sales freeze on homes between 2017 and 2019. However, the city’s own records show that the Land Bank sold at least four homes during this time.

Vacant lots and an abandoned home in East Davison Village.

The Land Bank’s mandate from the city, as outlined in the planning study, wasn’t simple or easy. It had to disperse hundreds of parcels in a way that promoted neighborhood stabilization without upsetting longtime residents. While it created a lot bundling program, which the Land Bank says currently has five residents and groups going through the application process, it’s largely pressed on with its normal approach: selling lots that are adjacent or near residents and putting homes up for sale to the public. 

“The Land Bank has to be buyer blind,” Stickland said. “People were alerted, got notifications, but are maybe upset because they were outbid on a property. Many of those houses have since achieved compliance. And we still think it’s what the neighborhood wants as a whole; going from empty houses to residents with families living in them and lots maintained and used for the community’s benefit.”

Tensions rise

These frustrations are creating some tensions with newcomers, many of whom are immigrants with ties to neighboring Banglatown and Hamtramck, areas with more density and a higher median income. 

“I don’t care what color you are or what god you believe in. I don’t have any issues with the new people that come here,” Hendley said. “But I don’t see any Blacks. The people who have been living here for 40 to 50 years can’t get these houses.” 

Global Detroit, an advocate for Detroit’s immigrant communities, has worked extensively in the area. It completed an “action plan” for Banglatown in 2016 and completed another study on Banglatown/Davison this month. 

The advocacy group’s most recent study found that many new homebuyers in the area are immigrants with large familial and community networks that pool and share resources. Overall, the report says, this trend has been good for the area, resulting in a decrease in blight and tax foreclosure, an increase in owner-occupied homes, more commercial activity on Conant and a decrease in crime.

But Steve Tobocman, executive director of Global Detroit, also warned that there’s a danger if longtime residents don’t receive benefits as well. 

“You absolutely run the risk of seeing some kind of resentment or worse towards newcomers,” he said. “Currently, while there’s a noteworthy absence of organized opposition [between longtime and new residents], there’s also not a lot of collaboration and deep interaction.”

In the report, Global Detroit recommended the Land Bank release more property to longtime residents, even if it means not every project is successfully finished. 

“It just isn’t doing any good for the city to own over 50,000 parcels of vacant land,” Tobocman said. “And nine times out of 10, when it is sold to residents, they do a better job of maintaining it.

“With the amount of housing in its inventory, the Land Bank can afford to take risks.” 

Aaron (he/him) believes in telling true stories about real people. He doesn’t think there’s anything better than a crisp fall afternoon at the Detroit Jazz Fest.