Hantz tree farm falls short on solving east side blight
In the months before Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, John Hantz took control of almost an entire east side neighborhood through special rates and purchase agreements with the city and its land bank.
A decade later, the wealthy entrepreneur has offloaded a fraction of the properties for more than $9.5 million. Some other parcels that he retained or sold to developers have sat vacant, racking up hundreds of blight tickets and thousands of dollars in unpaid fines. Today, Hantz holds roughly 2,000 properties of the 2,600 he acquired in the neighborhood.
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A BridgeDetroit analysis of blight violations and property sales found that since 2011, Hantz-owned companies have sold about 10% of the properties for nine times as much as Hantz originally paid. At the same time, Hantz and contractors he has teamed with to renovate homes have received nearly 200 blight tickets from the city, earning $33,110 in fines.
A partial map of properties bought and sold by John Hantz, including those with blight tickets. Map by Nina Ignaczak. (Source: City of Detroit Open Data Portal)
Hantz set out with the goal of beautifying the neighborhood with urban farmland and offered renderings with wind turbines and neat rows of trees, yet some east side residents say he has fallen short on his promises and not faced the consequences that longtime residents often navigate.
One of those residents is Matthew “Jaye” Green, who wanted to buy his childhood home in East Village after his grandmother lost the home to property tax foreclosure in the early 2000s.
Green, named a “Detroit Hero” by the city for his work with youth, bought the house in 2019 from the Detroit Land Bank Authority with a vision of turning it into a much-needed community center with art, music, and sports programming.
But after failing to renovate the property according to the land bank’s purchase agreement timeline, Green might lose the house for a second time. Hantz meanwhile, also has failed to meet deadlines, but is working under a different set of standards, and hasn’t had to return any of his properties.
“It just feels privileged,” Green said, “he’s not even from the area.”
In 2012, Hantz, head of Hantz Group, a financial firm that manages $5.7 billion in assets, unveiled his vision for a tree farm across more than a thousand parcels of city land on the east side. He sought to beautify and restore pride in Detroit by reducing blight on properties that the city struggled to maintain. But to do this he wanted the city to sell him the land at a lower cost. So, when Detroit was on the precipice of bankruptcy, Hantz offered to buy 1,550 blighted parcels on the east side for just $540,000.
Not everyone was on board with the proposal. The ask – originally for 10,000 acres – was debated for years, and evolved from an urban food farm to a tree farm. In 2012, a public hearing was held by the city council to consider Hantz’s proposal. The hearing was packed with residents in opposition to the sale, who argued it was a land grab and would lead to more broken promises from the city and developers. Some residents were upset that lots they tried to buy, and weren’t granted, would now be sold to Hantz. Detroit farmers at the forefront of the city’s renowned urban agriculture movement criticized the city for its unfair treatment of small farmers. Others worried about one of the largest speculative land sales in the city’s history being made with a white man in a majority Black city, and called for the land to instead be put into a community land trust.
The city council narrowly approved the sale in a 5-4 vote and in 2013, the project, Hantz Farms, or Hantz Woodlands, was greenlit by former Gov. Rick Snyder while Detroit was under emergency management.
In the ensuing years, Hantz cleaned up 2,000 parcels, demolished a number of abandoned structures, and with the help of volunteers, planted tens of thousands of trees. In 2016, ‘Land Grab’, a documentary partially funded by Hantz, detailed the controversy that made national headlines.
In 2019, the city orchestrated another large land deal with Hantz. In order for Stellantis, formerly Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, to expand its east side automotive plant, it needed Hantz-owned land.
To free up the land for Stellantis, the land bank and city sold Hantz hundreds more parcels under unique conditions. City and land bank officials could not pinpoint the exact number of properties but estimated it was between 460 and 660. He paid just 8.33 cents per square foot, the same low price he paid in 2012, and was given four times as long to complete renovations than what is afforded to most buyers who purchase properties through the land bank’s typical online sales programs. The city also gave Hantz purchasing priority in the neighborhood, allowing him to hand-pick properties he wanted out of the land bank’s inventory. As a part of the deal, he acquired 80 land bank homes with the option to renovate or demolish them by 2021, or the properties could revert back to the land bank. For the vacant properties, Hantz was required to mow every three weeks, plant at least 100 trees per acre, and remove illegally dumped debris.
The deal for Hantz is standard for more complex land bank sales that aren’t part of the individual home sale programs offered online, “whether the project is large or small,” said spokeswoman Alyssa Strickland-Knight.
“These sales also face a higher level of scrutiny before sale, with financial vetting, project proposal review, City partner review, and Board of Directors approval,” she said.
Hantz sold the 80 houses to contractors and business partners Glenn Prentice, Darrel Bartkowiak and Roy Gelerman, an executive for Hantz Group, to renovate. By the original deadline, just half of the 80 homes were completed, so the contractors got another extension, until May 2023. But this month, Mike Score, president of Hantz Farms, told BridgeDetroit that half the homes still await renovation while Prentice confirmed his homes will not be complete by May. An additional four out of the five structures are non-compliant.
At the same time, Hantz and the contractors have paid $7,035 of the $33,110 in total fines they owe for blight tickets. Despite missing benchmarks and receiving violations, the land bank has never reclaimed a parcel of land from Hantz.
Hantz declined an interview, but Score and the contractors Hantz sold to argue the city’s blight tickets are often misguided. They said they are working to reduce blight, offer affordable housing, and attract more development to the neighborhood.
One of the contractors noted that half of his newly renovated homes are reserved for Section 8 housing. Another said he plans to offer rent-to-own contracts to increase homeownership in the area, and to construct a community greenhouse on each block to improve healthy food access. Out of a collective 198 tickets between Hantz and the contractors they were ultimately found not responsible for a little more than half.
Score said it isn’t fair for Hantz to be linked to, or held responsible for what happens to the houses that Hantz sold to be renovated. The land bank confirmed that the buyers took responsibility for the original agreement. But the Hantz Farms website notes that Hantz is working with the companies to rehabilitate the homes as a part of their efforts in the neighborhood.
Score also disputes that Hantz has made $9.5 million in profit, saying the company has spent more than that on operating Hantz Farms and cleaning up the neighborhood. The 211 parcels were sold to a mix of buyers, including contractors, residents and the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority.
Improvements made, but blight remains
A drive through the neighborhood revealed that a number of properties owned by the contractors are in rough shape.
Some lack windows and stable porches. One is missing parts of the foundation, leaving a large opening to the basement through the side of the house. The sidewalks outside of some of Hantz’s vacant lots are indiscernible, equally covered in grass as the rest of the land.
The blight tickets Hantz and the three contractors received cite trash and excessive weeds, failure to obtain compliance, rental, and vacancy certificates, and unlawfully renting properties without proper lead clearances. Prentice and an associate also received one violation from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy for failing to properly survey for asbestos. The blight violations also include other properties owned by the three contractors that weren’t purchased from Hantz.
“You’ve got abandoned properties just sitting there,” said Lashell Williams, a resident who has lived on Hurlbut – where half the properties are owned by Hantz – for decades. The vacant lots have pushed wildlife into the area, she said, from raccoons to rabbits, pheasants and deer, which she considers a nuisance.
Hantz owns a vacant lot next to Williams’ home, which she said he neglects.
“They have not cut the grass, they have not done anything. They have not trimmed any of the bushes in the yard. I have been maintaining the lot for over 40 years,” she said.
That lack of enforcement in the Hantz area is not unique, said Keith Rodgerson, a former employee of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and the Detroit land bank.
“When these transfers happen under the Duggan administration there’s a blind eye to enforcement,” he argued. In his own southwest Detroit neighborhood, Rodgerson said residents are facing similar challenges with feeling like the Morouns aren’t being held accountable for their development projects.
Gelerman, Prentice, and Bartkowiak all deny any validity in the blight tickets they’ve received.
Gelerman said the tickets are “disheartening” and added that he thought he would have gotten more support from the city for his development efforts.
“We have turned around that neighborhood. We’ve tried our hardest,” said Gelerman, noting neighbors often thank him for his work.
“They’re picking on us,” Prentice said of the city during a recent tour of the properties he’s renovating on Harding Street. Prentice has received 54 blight violations overall since 2018.
“The blight violations, the majority of which is pure garbage, is people dumping. They illegally dump on the property and then I have to pay the fine,” said Prentice, gesturing toward a stack of tires in the backyard that he said were illegally dumped.
Prentice said he used to go to court to argue the blight tickets, but has stopped.
“I got tired of even fighting them. I just got tired of it. I’m done arguing. You want to fine me, go ahead,” said Prentice, adding he doesn’t have time for three-hour Zoom calls to dispute the violations. “We’re working to improve the neighborhood, give us a break.”
The city said the blight tickets are part of a larger accountability effort across Detroit.
“The city has stepped up blight enforcement citywide and will continue to,” said David Bell, director of the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department.
Score said in the decade that Hantz has owned properties in the neighborhood it has helped create a new residential real estate market of sellers and buyers, evidenced by the hundreds of homes that have been renovated and houses for sale in the area.
“When we began, there were no houses for sale and listed through realtors. When people wanted to leave, they just let the houses go through foreclosure. Now, there is a real estate market of buyers and sellers,” Score wrote in an email to BridgeDetroit.
Score also noted that Hantz was found not responsible for the majority of the 42 city blight tickets he’s received.
Prentice also prides himself on cleaning up the neighborhood and turning it around.
He took BridgeDetroit on a tour of one of the 39 homes he is renovating where he’s preserving the terra cotta roof, a window seat nook, and other unique features. “We want to keep every house original – that’s our goal,” he said.
In the back, Prentice has installed a new roof on the garage and said he plans to renovate the driveway in the spring. With all of the homes, he said, he’s had to take care of water damage and asbestos, and in some cases replace the sewer and gas lines underground.
In 2020, Christine Hunter moved from Louisiana to Detroit into a home near Indian Village owned by Gelerman.
“It’s a great house. It’s in great condition,” said Hunter, who pays $1,350 per month for the two-story rental. She said Gelerman is “very responsive” and “flexible” from resetting the water heater to payment challenges during COVID-19 related job and health changes.
In the last few years Gelerman said he’s faced multiple challenges that have led to him losing money, including the moratorium on rent payments during the pandemic, rising interest rates, expensive items being stolen from the houses, and historic flooding. Gelerman estimates he’s lost between $200,000 and $300,000 from rent payments that weren’t made.
“We tried our hardest to turn around the neighborhood,” he said. “You would think I would be the poster child for the best landlord in Detroit.”
Held to a different standard
At age 10, after his mother died of cancer, Green moved into his grandmother’s house on the east side.
In the early 2000s, he said his grandmother lost the home due to unpaid taxes.
When Green bought his childhood home from the land bank in 2019 he had to ask Hantz first and to pay three times as much as Hantz would have under his deal. Per land bank terms, Green was also given a quarter of the time Hantz had to renovate.
Now, Green is losing his home for a second time for “insufficient proof of renovation progress” according to the land bank. Green said that with the various challenges of COVID-19 he was behind, but doing what he could, paying taxes and paying bills for the house in his name.
The land bank said taking properties back is always a last resort. “We want our buyers to keep their houses, finish their renovations, and live in or rent out the properties,” Strickland-Knight emphasized. But the authority said Green had been given multiple extensions on the renovations and the land bank wasn’t seeing sufficient progress.
But Green said he’s been living in the house since he bought it, and is helping transform the neighborhood by addressing blight on his street. The land bank confirmed Green sent in proof of bills he’d paid for the house.
“COVID, it hit my family so bad. I was just like, ‘can you please give me an extension?’ I sent them pictures of the stuff that I needed to handle, but they were really adamant,” Green said. “They see me putting the money into it. They see me paying the taxes on the house, I have bills with my name on it,” said Green, calling it “harassment.”
Both Green and Hantz have cited COVID-19 hardships for delays in the timeline of their renovations.
But Hantz, who operates under a different purchase agreement, has not had a single property taken back by the land bank, Strickland-Knight confirmed, although she noted he has “voluntarily” returned a few to the land bank at the land banks’ request.
The land bank said Green’s case is under review. Initially, the land bank had repossessed his property on Jan. 4 and after Green started a Go Fund Me for repairs and received media attention, the land bank extended the deadline to Jan. 19. It’s unclear what will happen to Green’s property if it reverts back to the land bank.
Some residents argue it’s not fair that Hantz, a developer with more resources and money, is being held to different standards than Detroiters wanting to invest in their own community.
Toiya Watts, president of the Charlevoix Village Association, was at the public hearing in 2012 when the council narrowly voted to approve Hantz’s proposal to the dismay of other urban farmers, residents, and community organizers.
“It just made us so mad that they had this big whole meeting with the city council,” she said. “They knew that was coming and they (the city) gave all this permission to give John Hantz all this land in the community. It’s a push out – all that land down there by Chrysler and they made a deal with some landlord and gave him some money when he owes blight tickets,” she said. “Just one man – all this land. He had a chokehold on these people.”
George Jackson, a former president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. who now leads his own consulting firm, said he had a “wait and see” attitude when the project was first proposed, holding some skepticism about the feasibility of urban farming to address blight.
Ten years later, he said if one of the main objectives was to eliminate blight then Hantz should be held accountable for contributing to it.
“Updates, assessments, and accountability is something that is a part of the [development] process. That’s why you have a development agreement, it doesn’t mean adjustments aren’t made, but that serves as a guideline,” he said.
“At the same time, it’s not a perfect science,” said Jackson, calling large development projects like Hantz’s in urban and poor areas, difficult. For this reason, Jackson said, it makes sense for special agreements to be formed for large development projects, but benchmarks need to be met.
Dolores Orr, a board member of the East Village Association, blames the city, not Hantz, for the ways in which the neighborhood has changed.
“As a whole the community did suffer from the way the city sold the land,” she said. But Hantz, she said, is a supportive member of the community, donating to her organization. “The city is finding all types of reasons to push residents out.”
Orr remembers inquiring about buying land from the city at the same time that Hantz first presented his ideas to the community.
“They told me that it was being reserved for developers,” Orr said city officials told her. “It’s not Hantz Farms that we need to look at, we need to look at our government.”
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