When Arizona Vaughn looked at 5210 Marlborough St. in 1993, she didn’t see a shabby brick abode on a street littered with trash and vacant lots, a street where occasional gunshots pierce the air.
The Mississippi native who came to Detroit in search of a better life saw past the broken windows and gaping roof, truant teens and druggies with syringes that were tearing the place apart.
Vaughn saw her home.
She photographed the house, which by all accounts was an irritant to neighbors and a danger to children walking to school. Taxes dating to 1980 and totaling $17,000 were owed. The city foreclosed on the property in 1994.
That year Vaughn went to the Planning and Development Department, the agency holding title to some 40,000 abandoned city properties. An official there named Charlie Coleman told her she could buy the house for $4,000, minus receipts for repairs. He gave her a note — unofficial, handwritten — on his stationery. He said to come back in February 1996 with the receipts. She took the slip of paper and ran with it.
Nine years and $20,000 in home improvements later, the City of Detroit is evicting Vaughn, a nursing aide who is raising her 5-year-old grandson, Charlie, at the house.
In December, the city argued in court that Vaughn hasn’t paid rent or taxes and has no right to the property, which it now values at $30,800. City attorneys, on behalf of the planning department, and in direct contradiction to instructions given by the City Council, claim Vaughn must pay the new sales price for the house. That price jumped from Coleman’s $4,000 in 1994 to $17,000 in 1996, after Vaughn’s repairs. It later dipped to $7,000 and then to $4,500, after City Council ordered the planning department to allow Vaughn to take title to the house.
Vaughn says she simply does not have the money. She put every penny left over from her $13,000-a-year earnings into the house.
“She’s limited in her income,” says her attorney Bob Day of the Legal Aid and Defenders Association. “She doesn’t have thousands in cash lying around. The city is basically saying she’s a squatter.
“You would hope the city would realize it has bigger problems than to spend money and time to evict this woman, after she fixed up one of their abandoned houses.”
A district court judge agreed to evict Vaughn shortly before Christmas, but allowed the case to move to Wayne County Circuit Court, where Vaughn is suing the city for title to the house, claiming Detroit reneged on its deal and would wrongly benefit from her repairs to the house.
“My house is a house they didn’t have to tear down,” says Vaughn. “They didn’t have to tear it down because I fixed it up and turned it into a home.
“All I want to do is work, pay taxes, raise my grandson and own this home. The city says they want the residents to help beautify the city. So why do they want to put a mother out on the street?”
Today 5210 Marlborough is, indeed, a lovely home. The living room is hung with art and family pictures. The kitchen is immaculate, bright blue with ruffled white curtains. The refrigerator is covered with art by Vaughn’s 5-year-old grandson, Charlie. He sleeps in a light blue bedroom adorned with hand-drawn pictures of the Viper sports car, his alphabet in capital and small letters and a poster of Malcolm X.
Long way home
Vaughn’s battle over the house began in 1996. At Coleman’s instruction, she took some $2,000 in receipts to City Hall, hoping to receive title to the property. But Coleman was gone, fired.
Someone else in the department told Vaughn that Coleman’s deal was no good. Though she’d already spent $2,000 improving the house, she was told she could buy it for $4,500 more — money she didn’t have. After city inspectors saw the work Vaughn had done on the house, the sale price jumped to $17,000.
Vaughn, infuriated, went to City Council.
Council members understood her plight and directed planning officials to help her gain title to the house.
“It’s a price that disregards the condition that the house was in when she took it over,” said council member Maryann Mahaffey during a November 1996 hearing. “If it goes the way they [planning officials] want, we’ll be making money off somebody else’s back.”
Vaughn negotiated with the department but no purchase agreement was made. In 2001, Vaughn signed a city document that listed additional repairs she’d need to make to bring the house to code. She used the paperwork to get a $15,000 home improvement loan — $4,000 of which was interest. She fixed the roof and made additional upgrades with the balance.
The city lowered the sales price to $7,000. Vaughn balked. The city lowered the price to $4,500.
Vaughn again went to City Council, in July 2000. Council members Kay Everett and Gill Hill were irate with the planning department. Again the council ordered planning officials to help Vaughn gain title.
“You are going to have trouble out of us if she doesn’t get help,” said Hill.
Added Everett: “At this point, it does the city no good to take it back. It’ll just go into disrepair again.”
Everett told Vaughn: “We’re trying to save the houses that we can and you’ve helped us with this one.”
“I thought City Council had some power,” says Vaughn. “I thought with their support, the house was mine. But I guess the planning department doesn’t have to do what the council says.”
Memorial to Charlie
Vaughn’s suit asks for title to the house or $50,000 in damages. But she says money’s not the issue.
It’s been a tough road, she explains, since she left her farm home in Clarkston, Miss. — pregnant and single — because the best job she could get was washing windows for $1.75 an hour. She wanted a better life for her unborn child.
She arrived in Detroit in 1979 with her young son, Charlie. She worked in numerous nursing homes and hospitals, and rented from east side landlords who cared none for upkeep or repair. She saw her son Charlie graduate from high school. When they moved into 5210 Marlborough in 1994, he worked hard to help fix up the house. Mother and son were close.
Three days after he finished classes at Wayne County Community College in 1997, Charlie was shot to death near his home, the apparent victim of gang violence. Vaughn was nearly suicidal with grief, she says.
Four months later, Charlie’s son was born. The mother couldn’t care for the baby, so Vaughn has raised the younger Charlie from infancy at 5210 Marlborough. He calls her Mom. She tells him his daddy helped make their home.
“This house is a piece of him,” says Vaughn of her son. “We worked hard on this house. I can’t leave it now — it would be losing a piece of him. It’s all I have”
In addition to her suit, Vaughn is trying to start a movement. She’s got 300 signatures from residents who live near abandoned structures. Her petition reads, “We the people in the city of Detroit are petitioning the Planning and Development committee to have the first rights at the abandoned houses in the city. If we are able to repair them, we should be able to own them, and not be put out after repairs to the houses.”
The city’s “nuisance abatement” program intends to accomplish exactly what Vaughn hopes to do. Under the program, the city and someone seeking an abandoned house sign a contract that spells out a list of repairs. If they’re completed within three years, the property will be sold to the resident for a price equal to its value minus the cost of repairs. Vaughn never had such a contract.
Though City Council has long advocated selling vacant properties for $1, the city’s mayors and law department have opposed such a policy. The Kilpatrick administration says it hopes to ramp up the nuisance abatement program to get more abandoned city-owned houses into the hands of prospective homeowners. Nonprofit housing officials say the program has been an abysmal failure, mainly because residents who want the houses often don’t have money for the repairs, which can be sizable.
Vaughn feels it’s city officials who are the nuisance.
“They’d rather have us rent from slum landlords than take houses and fix them up,” says Vaughn. “They’re as slum as slum can be.”Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org