Students to University of Michigan: Stop funding Detroit evictions

Doctoral student Persephone Hernandez-Vogt, left, and Heather Rainwater Campbell, right, were among those who attended Thursday’s Board of Regents meeting at the University of Michigan to protest the university’s investment in a real-estate firm tied to some Detroit evictions. (Bridge photo by Magdalena Mihaylova)

University of Michigan students, staff and faculty on Thursday asked the Board of Regents and President Mark Schlissel to divest from a real-estate firm whose investments have led to evictions in Detroit.

The group of about a dozen appeared before the regents one week after a Bridge Magazine article detailed the university endowment’s $30 million investment in the Detroit Renaissance Real Estate Fund, a company owned by Corey Hanker and Jordan Friedman. They own a separate firm, FDR, that bought 112 homes at Wayne County’s tax auction homes last fall, 47 of which were occupied at the time of foreclosure. The company since filed evictions on 20 of those homes.

That has led to complaints from students the university’s investment in Detroit is doing more harm than good. Two students made public comments at the meeting, urging the board to reconsider its investment. 

Related: The University of Michigan bet big on Detroit. Now come the evictions

Related: Opinion | U-M’s investment in Detroit is helping us improve Detroit, not evict people.

“This $30 million investment undermines the public mission of this university and the president’s agenda to alleviate poverty in Detroit,” said Alexa Eisenberg, a U-M doctoral candidate and a board member with the United Community Housing Coalition, Detroit’s principal tax foreclosure prevention nonprofit. 

This investment – in a direct and irrevocable way – threatens the stability of Detroit families and promises to inflict further damage to the city’s neighborhoods,” she said.

The group of U-M students and staff wore stickers that read “No M Evictions” and carried signs with messages including “UM out of Detroit Foreclosure” and “Housing is a Human Right.” 

“What we’re hoping to do is send a strong message to Schlissel, to the regents and the rest of the university administration that investing this amount of money in a company that is profiting by evicting Detroiters from their homes is just totally contrary to the university’s public mission,” said Joel Batterman, a U-M doctoral student in urban and regional planning, who also spoke at the meeting.

University officials did not respond to the students during the meeting, but officials met with them afterward to discuss their concerns and the Bridge article. In response to a request for comment from Bridge, university officials sent a statement about its endowment that mentioned the university has "invested significantly in Detroit and the metro area," but did not directly address the Fortus investment. 

 Last week, Schlissel said Detroit neighborhoods could benefit from more outside investors, telling Bridge an argument could be made that “the dislocation of a certain number of people in return for investment in decaying housing stock is part of the pathway to making the city a better place to live.”

Friedman told Bridge after the meeting that the auction-acquired properties are a “very small part” of the company’s portfolio in Detroit. The company typically avoids buying occupied homes, he said, and only moved to evict after occupants illegally entered their property after purchase and numerous attempts to work with them failed.

“We're very, very long-term committed to this city,” Friedman said. “We're not trying to make money quickly. Our only concern is being good to Detroit. And we really pride ourselves on our community involvement and really making sure we're doing right by the neighborhoods and the people there.”

Friedman said he hopes to start a conversation with Detroiters, U-M students and staff about the company’s investments.

“I’d love to have a dialogue and learn more, and keep this conversation going, because it is an important conversation,” Friedman said. “We’re sensitive to the issues, we’re aware of these issues.”

It is unclear why and how the university endowment fund decided to invest in Detroit real estate. 

Lindsay Calka, an undergraduate student at U-M, spent July visiting tax-foreclosed homes in Detroit with her peers, and warning residents of potential evictions. She is part of a university program that allows students to take classes on Detroit and complete an internship at a non-profit, grassroots organization in the city.

“It kind of made us really sick,” said Calka, speaking of the investment.

“Here we are, students doing this, and we find out that our university is potentially funding the companies that are buying these homes and causing evictions.” 

Calka said she hopes she and maybe even the university can make a difference.

“I came here idealizing the university. It’s a force to be reckoned with...for making change and having social impact. I still have this hope that it can be a force for good,” Calka said.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to better reflect the University of Michigan's response to students and Bridge Magazine.

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Ren Farley
Fri, 07/19/2019 - 8:56am

I am pleased to read this coverage of University's investments in a firm that apparently profits from evicting low-income Detroit residents from their homes. If Woodward and Richard were still running the school, I suspect they would not have made such an investment.

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 1:38pm

“Evicting low income people from their homes” is quite different than evicting squatters** who take over homes and often times terrorize neighborhoods. You may wanna look at some YouTube videos — search squatter Detroit to see the reality please. I would put $$$ on it you do not live in Detroit. I do.

Paul M.
Fri, 07/19/2019 - 10:04am

Can we please stop blaming U of M for evictions? This is a load of BS. Other landlords default on property taxes. The city takes the homes and sells them. The city requires evictions of persons living in the homes unlawfully. You want to blame someone? Blame the law. No one cares about the homes except for these small developers investing to fix them up. The foreclosed homes are in utter disrepair and dangerous condition because they have been abandoned for years.

These people getting “evicted” are squatters who illegally move into the home because it’s vacant. You conveniently forgot to mention every single person of this 20 who were evicted were there illegally by not paying rent or altogether squatting, including Nunley. He lived in that home you reported on last week rent-free for nearly 7 months after the home was foreclosed. Do your research as journalists and stop harassing businesses for headlines.

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 1:34pm

Exactly. That is the truth too. Squatters rights is enough— giving people MORE than enough time to find a new place once property has been rightfully paid for and the owners will try to bring it up to code! When I evicted squatters** not former owners or renters— squatters** the house was is in shambles —(2 years of work - electrical, plumbing, major foundation) but I’m a bad person for evicting people who had just taken it over hooked up electricity illegally— had everyyyy kind of bug and rodent infestation imaginable. No the city is wrong to make people go through this insane 3 mos process and pay $3,000 or more. Then the rehab starts IF the squatters don’t just burn the house down out of spite in the process. They need some voices of real world expirience instead of these nut job academics who come in to do a semester abroad in Detroit. They’re ridiculous.

Jamal Q.
Fri, 07/19/2019 - 10:39am

Do you know what happens when Univ. of Mich. pulls out of this investment? 300 plus jobs are lost. 300 local Detroiters who are able to pay their rents and provide for their families because they are employed by Fortus. And these foreclosed homes you're so worried about? They remain blighted - no power and falling apart as many of them have con-caved roofs and destroyed flooring. Are these students going to fix them up with their own money and pay for people to live there for free? No one is going to invest in these neighborhoods anymore. You are driving out the only people are actually doing their part to help outside of downtown. Your words have power and you are using them to destroy a business and hundreds of peoples' livelihoods. Great job.

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 1:36pm

Exactly. If they are PhD students they can come up with a master plan to solve Detroit’s homeless crisis. Instead of “let all homes be free for squatting in” asinine bull crap. These students are insane/

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 11:12am

These white entitled journalists and students about to put 300 minority workers out of jobs

Fri, 07/19/2019 - 1:29pm

Most of these properties are no habited by former owners but taken over by squatters who do not have the means or skills to maintain or rehab them. They have never paid rent. I think it’s asinine to think that that’s the way a city should be run— free houses for everybody— no ownership at alol. I bought and rehabbed a house in Southwest detroit that had squatters that had taken it over. Because of “squatters rights” it took 3 months and about $3,000 to evict them. I offered them money numerous times to move as I knew it would cost this much for eviction. It’s insane. It was extremely** stressful. The house was in such total neglect it took 2 years to bring it up to code. I had to camp out and get eaten alive by bedbugs the day the eviction went down cause the squatters simply moved next door! Many times they will burn down the property or strip it completely— bust out the windows and no you can’t get it insured with squatters living inside — no way. But the doctoral students are right— just let homeless people live in dilapidated houses that will rot for free. Makes sense... cause they are sent on semesters abroad to live in third world Detroit and they know what’s best! Watch YouTube videos about squatters in Detroit— moving into peoples houses while they’re on vacation. The lack of property owners rights and the insane entitlement mentality are seriously terrifying. Squatters rights should be abolished for the city to make progress and became somewhat of a first world city again. These people are nuts to think squatters will take care of and maintain a house or be good neighbors. They need to spend more than one semester abroad in Detroit and respect what a huge project it is to buy and rehab a dilapidated home, let alone play the squatters rights game out here.

Sat, 07/20/2019 - 12:42pm

This is unbelievable. People do not have a right to live in a house that isn't theirs.

Sat, 07/20/2019 - 2:48pm

So, when these kids go in business for themselves, (which will probably be never) they can give away all the free stuff they want.

Sun, 07/21/2019 - 10:10pm

Does this article seem more like an advocate's opinion piece than reporting designed to help readers become better informed and able to make more fact based choices than emotional reactions?

Mon, 07/22/2019 - 8:13am

See what happens when the state cuts support for higher Ed??