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Detroit steps up its fight against blight

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Sunday, January 9, 2005

Detroit steps up its fight against blight, urban decay

City opens special court to deal with polluters and owners of unused buildings.

By Judy Lin / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- The city's newest department is wasting no time on Detroit's fight against blight, handing out its first batch of violations last week.

The Department of Administrative Hearings officially opened its blight court on Jefferson Avenue on Tuesday and began issuing citations against polluters and abandoned building owners who violate city codes.

The department will begin holding hearings next month, and the city expects a telephone line for complaints to be ready this spring.

Previously, the city used the 36th District Court to rule on property violations for such things as illegal dumping, building neglect and improper signs. Because the court could only review about 7,200 violations annually, the city decided to start its own blight court and can now assess fines ranging from $25 to $10,000.

The department can handle up to 70,000 cases each year, however, Director Medina Abdun-Noor hopes that won't be necessary.

"There's potentially 70,000 violations out there. Are we're hoping to see that? No. I hope that we see none," Abdun-Noor said.

City officials and neighborhood activists hope the department will be the catalyst for a major cleanup effort in downtown and across the city before Detroit hosts the All-Star baseball game later this year and the Super Bowl next year.

Before, a judge could only issue an arrest warrant if an owner failed to show up at a hearing for a violation. Now, the department's hearing office can fine the owner without going through another court. Also, community members are encouraged to testify.

"I believe this new office is something that is long overdue," said John J. George, director and founder of Motor City Blight Busters, a nonprofit housing group. "People need to be held accountable for their actions and inactions."

While Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick made clearing abandoned buildings a priority for the administration, some building owners and business groups wonder if the department with a $2.3 million budget is an attempt to generate new revenue.

"If they're using the power willy-nilly and they turn into a business harassment department, then no," said Michael Sarafa, president of the Associated Food Dealers of Michigan, which expressed concerns when the mayor pushed for a cleanup of liquor stores. "It's clearly a play to capture the revenues associated with the fines."

Tony Pieroni, who owns two downtown buildings, said the city should focus on repairing city-owned eyesores. Vandals have broken into the publicly owned Statler-Hilton building, which is abandoned, and climbed onto the roof of his building to steal fixtures, he said.

The city has been slow to tear down the Statler-Hilton, Pieroni said.

"I don't know if they can get it torn down in time for Super Bowl."

Sarafa and Pieroni say many owners struggle to keep up with the cost of building maintenance because taxes and crime are high.

George, of Blight Busters, said his group intends to monitor the effectiveness of the department by tracking two dozen long-standing eyesores in northwest Detroit and downtown.

You can reach Judy Lin at (313) 222-2072 or [email protected]

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"The department will begin holding hearings next month, and the city expects a telephone line for complaints to be ready this spring."

Get ready to dial up the slumlords! We can get our buildings back!

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This new department does seem to be geared towards neighborhoods though, which is a good thing. Having a nice downtown is great, but the neighborhoods are even more important. Otherwise how will you stop people from fleeing the city?

Hopefully we will see some improvement downtown because of this though.

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