Housing lawsuit takes another step toward shutting the door

By Charles Sercombe
Despite a housing market that is in the dumps, new housing is coming to Hamtramck.
But the real good news is that the 65 units coming our way will be the next to the last step toward putting an end to a long-standing housing discrimination lawsuit.
The lawsuit, commonly referred to by local insiders as “R-31,” was the result of city officials targeting a mostly African-American neighborhood for housing demolition under a so-called “urban renewal” plan in the 1960s.
The ousted residents were forced to find new housing on their own, often outside the city.
African-Americans didn’t buy the ruse and sued the city for housing discrimination. The suit lingered for years until a settlement agreement was reached. The agreement called for the city to build housing for the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, but the actual construction of housing was stalled for over 20 years as both sides bickered over financing and plans.
In the late 1990s, a housing plan was finalized but it still took several years for everyone to sign off and get funding secured. A mix of county, state and federal funding was tapped into.
New housing was built in the neighborhood west of I-75 and in empty lots scattered throughout the city.
Since the housing market tanked and selling the houses to plaintiffs became thorny, officials connected with the lawsuit agreed to allow folks to rent the dwellings.
Now, another 65 units will be offered, with some of them to be put up for sale and others offered for rent. Some of the units will be brand new houses while other units will be remodeled housing stock.
Thirty-five of the housing units are being funded by the state housing department, at a price of about $6 to $8 million. Wayne County is building the remaining 30 units at a cost of about $4 million.
The state housing units will offer vouchers, or breaks, on rent and will also offer free lawn, snow and garbage maintenance. Out of the total rent collected from all the units, 4 percent of that amount will be turned over to the city in lieu of property taxes.
That amount should total several thousand dollars a year for the city, which became a point of contention for councilmembers Cathie Gordon and Tom Jankowski during Tuesday’s council meeting. They said the amount collected will not cover the cost of services for the city, especially police and fire.
But a state official said that the 4 percent figure must remain firm or the deal would be killed and the city would be on its own to find funding for the housing units.
It was a take it or leave ultimatum for city officials. And then City Attorney Jim Allen dropped a bomb on the council. He said the federal judge who has overseen the lawsuit since its inception would likely override the council and put the project through as outlined by the state.
So, it then became a situation where the council’s bickering over percentages was irrelevant.
Still, when it came to vote on authorizing the project, Councilmembers Gordon and Jankowski held their ground. Both voted against the project.
“I still have a problem with 4 percent,” Gordon said.
Out in the council chamber hallway, Jankowski said that he voted against the project also because of the 4 percent figure and because he wanted to stress to state officials that Hamtramck can’t be bullied.
The final piece of the lawsuit is the construction or remodeling of 60 more units. The city has applied for federal stimulus money to cover that cost. The city expected to hear on Thursday, the day The Review went to press, if its application for funding was approved.
“If we get it, I’ll be doing cartwheels,” said City Manager Bill Cooper.

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