Saturday, July 13, 2024
Economic DevelopmentGovernment

City of Detroit: Just Kidding, We Do Have A Secret MOU With The Ilitches and Morouns.

In the latest entry in the saga of, “am I going crazy, or does Rust Belt municipal governance just really suck,” I received a final response to a months-long process of trying to FOIA data from the city of Detroit about why they refuse to enforce property maintenance code against two principal bad actors, the billionaire Ilitch family (Olympia Development) and the billionaire Moroun family (Detroit International Bridge Company, Crown Enterprises, Central Transport, and more). A spokesperson for the city had previously emphatically dismissed even the possibility that the city would negotiate a backdoor arrangement of any sort with these parties who, I have pointed out on multiple occasions, continue to violate with impunity a laundry list of city ordinances around property maintenance, to the detriment of the city and its residents. But the city’s tune changed when the FOIA request came in: turns out the city does have such an agreement with these companies.

The existence of an MOU alone doesn’t necessarily mean that the city is letting these companies off the hook, and it’s not actually clear what is in the MOU, because the city hasn’t actually provided me with the document yet– they’ve just told me that it does exist and that it’s 39 pages, or whatever.

But my source in BSEED tells me that the document effectively allows the department to present findings of alleged violations to the property owners or managers before enforcement action begins. As I encountered during my time in the department 2018-2019, there was every indication that these property managers were completely unaware of the very notion of code enforcement, and expressed frustration at being subjected to it. There is a notion in this great nation that you can get away with more nefarious deeds, the more money you have. But this has not been the case for Dan Gilbert, who, despite deserving a lot of the criticism he gets, actually seems to comply with city ordinances with the stuff he builds.

In other words, in comparison to Dan Gilbert, no one particularly likes the Morouns or the Ilitches, but they seem to get a pass because the Ilitches have access to entertainment dollars whence the city enjoys a healthy stream of tax revenue, and the Morouns have strategic control over a ton of land throughout the city. This seems a bit problematic, but it’s also unsurprising.

These aren’t minor complaints, however. In the case of the last complaint inspection I specifically requested, it was for three buildings in the Cass Corridor that are missing roofs, severely damaged masonry, lacking exterior signage (per the vacant property ordinance), and property registration (per the same). That was, of course, for the Ilitches. The Moroun complaints centered on a number of properties including one at the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Fort Street, which is being used (illegally, in my opinion as someone who used to carry a badge for a living to work on this sort of thing) to store a bunch of broken down old trucks.

The Moroun response to previous complaints was to add heavy-duty plastic tarps to screen off the lots on either side of West Grand– beginning with the east side, which abuts the Ambassador Bridge megaplex, and where the company had been illegally storing construction debris for months. The tarps came later on the west side of the street, where they continue to obscure sight of some ugly, broken down trucks.

We are still within the 35-ish-day window in which a property owner has the ability to respond to blight tickets, after that, I intend to figure out what the city did with both the list of Midtown properties I gave it and the list of Moroun properties in Southwest. We always hear that admitting you have a problem is a good first step. Is admitting that you have an MOU– whose existence you had previously scoffed at the idea of- the first step in holding delinquent landowners accountable?

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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