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Urban renewal displaces residents

Onita Gordon, a new tenant at Berwin Apartments, must move out by June 30. ZENOBIA JEFFRIES PHOTO

Onita Gordon, a new tenant at Berwin Apartments, must move out by June 30. ZENOBIA JEFFRIES PHOTO

By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — Recent evictions in the downtown and midtown area send the message to some that the new Detroit does not include many of the old Detroit residents.

“This is going to end up like Harlem,” says lifelong Detroiter Betty Scruse. “They’re going to have the best and we’re going to have what’s left.”

Scruse, 56, was recently evicted from her apartment at the newly renovated Alden Towers at 8100 East Jefferson.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) secretary says she planned to stay in her river view apartment at Alden Towers for another five years until she retired. Scruse, who moved into the 380-unit historic apartment building in October 2011, had only lived there 18 months when she received a notice of eviction.

“I knew something was wrong when they wouldn’t renew my lease,” Scruse told the Michigan Citizen. “They didn’t renew the lease because they knew what they were doing; we just didn’t know.”

In August 2012, the Colorado-based Triton Properties purchased and renamed the former Alden Park Towers, which was built in the early 1920s.

The previous owners, the Northern Group, which purchased the building in early 2005, did not maintain the building, according to Triton’s Director of Real Estate Luke Davis.

Subsequently, “criminals and squatters moved in and trashed the building.”

Riverfront gentrification

Davis is shown in a local television news report talking about the prime location of the Alden on the Detroit River and near Belle Isle.

Davis did not return calls by press time.

Alden Apartment Manager Stacy Leid hung up on this reporter when asked about the evictions.

In a two-page letter, responding to the eviction notice, Scruse wrote: “I was very disappointed to receive a notice, which didn’t result in non-payment of rent …. my rent is current.”

Her letter indicates that some of her neighbors had been residents for 15 years or more.

“Good paying, loyal tenants endured so much ugliness while living there and never once did we place our rents (sic) in escrow or pro-rate it because we didn’t get what we deserve as tenants,” she wrote. “Tenants endured no heat during cold winter nights, no hot water, elevator not working and outside doors not working properly, and never once did you compensate us for all of the sub-standard, deplorable inconveniences.”

“Shame on us that we stayed there without any amenities, we were just so happy to stay off the river,” she told the Michigan Citizen. “No amenities and we paid.”

Scruse told the Michigan Citizen she paid $1,350 in rent for her 1,300 square-foot, three-bedroom apartment — $25 of the rent included monthly parking fees. Far from being a “criminal or squatter,” the self-described gainfully employed worker described her unit as a museum.

“They showed on TV some of the run-down apartments,” she said referring to images of peeling ceilings and abandoned belongings shown on a televised news report. “I had a museum — an African museum.”

According to Scruse, she and over a hundred other Alden residents received notice March 1 to vacate their homes by March 31. Tenants were told they could stay for six months only after reapplying for another unit facing Jefferson, she says, but after that they had looked for a new place to live.

“I cried,” said Scruse, who was in the middle of moving her things. “I was looking to retire here.”

Scruse did not move out on the March 31 date and, instead, sought redress in court.

She was given until May 2 to move out.

“That was a very raw deal (what) they did to us and those people on Cass Corridor,” Cruze said, referring to residents living in three apartment buildings in the 400 block of Henry Street in Midtown. “But at least I have a job and can find somewhere else.”

Cass Corridor tenants hit

Residents in the Henry Street buildings and the Berwin, Claridge and Bretton Hall Apartments were notified April 19 they had 30 days to move from their homes.

Many of the residents in the 100 rental units are senior citizens, disabled, unemployed or classified as “working poor.”

When this reporter visited Henry Street, a letter, dated April 30, had just been posted on two of the buildings extending the eviction date to June 30.

Residents on the porches reading the letter seemed relieved.

“It’s better than what it was,” one resident said.

“At least we get our security deposit back if we’re paid up; we weren’t going to get that before,” said 51-year-old Onita Gordon, a new tenant at Berwin.

“I moved in April 1 and received this letter April 19,” she said unfolding documents related to her eviction. Her rent receipt dated April 1 was in the amount of $400. “The issue all along was giving people time to move out.”

According to the residents outside the buildings enjoying the long-awaited warm weather, Gordon was not the only tenant to move in April 1 — there were several. One man paid $700 to move into Bretton Hall.

Other residents weren’t as forgiving. Not only was time a factor, so was money.

“Most places cost (over a thousand dollars) to move into,” said one tenant, who did not give a name.

“They want first and last month’s rent and a security deposit.”

Rent at the three buildings start as low as $400. Manager Monica Guyzik of Claridge Apartments says some people who’ve lived in the apartments for a longer period are paying the initial $350 rate.

“People don’t have money for a security deposit, first and last month rent,” said Jennie Guyzik, a resident at Claridge for five years.

Another Berwin resident, Greg Hollins, said the extension letter was a “showing of good faith” but questioned if it would be followed through.

Hollins recently lost his job as a contractor with a local dry cleaner. “As the working poor, we have more hurdles and (they) are harder to overcome than those with serious disabilities. (They can get help).”

Glen Chinchilla has been at the Berwin since 1973. On staff at the DMC as a patient support worker, Chinchilla says he’s thankful he found another place.

“Thank God, I’m still working,” says Chinchilla, who was upset when he learned of the eviction. Although he says he heard rumors of the sale last year, he just didn’t believe the evictions would come so soon.

Mike, a resident of Berwin, said when they first got the news, they contacted the news channels and radio stations. He credits the media news reports for the extension. “They don’t want any bad publicity,” he said of former owner Peter Mercier of Grosse Pointe Farms and the new owner, whose name is unknown. “We (believe) know it’s (Michael) Illitch, he owns everything else around here.”

Residents believe the area blocks from Comerica, the Fox Theatre and Ford Field will be used to expand the entertainment district and include a new hockey arena.

The tenants have continued to have meetings since the first notification to explore their legal rights. Some local organizations have extended help in their effort.

“It still doesn’t change anything,” says community activist Ron Scott of Peace Zones for Life.

“Because we don’t know the circumstances of each person in the buildings.”

Scott says all residents should receive relocation grants.

Maria Thomas of Detroit Eviction Defense (DED) called the evictions unjust and unfair.

“Although residents believe Mr. Illitch is responsible for the purchase of the properties, we believe there’s a battle for the property, and it’s not necessarily the Illitches (who are the new owners).”

Regardless of ownership, Thomas says this will cause the number of the less fortunate to increase.

“If the economic and business climate continue to roll over the ‘least of these,’ the number will continue to grow until it’s the most of us. It’s appalling giving 30 days.”

Thomas says the DED is working on organizing a citywide renters’ union to protect renters from such actions.

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