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The University of Michigan is under public criticism for investing in a company involved in evictions in Detroit following a Bridge Magazine article published mid-July.
In February 2018, the University’s Board of Regents approved a $30 million dollar investment into the Detroit Renaissance Real Estate Fund LP, a Metro Detroit fund which invests in single and multi-family homes. Fortus Partners is a general partner for the fund, and the report claims a Fortus Partners-owned company bought 112 homes, 47 of which were occupied at the time of foreclosure, and filed for eviction for 20 of them.
A week after the Bridge article was released, University students, staff and faculty appeared before at the Regents meeting to ask University administration to halt their investment. An online petition, which as of publication has more than 400 signatures, was also started for the same purpose.
The petition was started by Joel Batterman, a University Ph.D. student of Urban Planning and Development. Batterman said he is appalled at the University’s actions.
“It struck me as outrageous that the University has invested in a company that was profiting off the foreclosure process, in particular, off the purchase of occupied homes,” Batterman said.
Alexa Eisenberg is a doctoral candidate with the School of Public Health and a researcher with University President Mark Schissel’s Poverty Solutions, an initiative to find ways to “prevent and alleviate poverty through action-based research.” She was present at the board meeting and was one of the speakers alongside Batterman.
In an interview with The Daily, Eisenberg expressed concern the investment could weaken the impact of her work, which she explained depends on the relationships she builds.
“(The investment) damages trust and undermines relationships that researchers and the University have built with community-based organizations and people in the city of Detroit,” Eisenberg said.
Corey Hanker and Jordan Friedman co-founded Fortus Partners with a mission to increase the availability of affordable, quality housing by rehabilitating single- and multi-family homes and apartments.
After the Bridge Magazine article was published, Fortus claimed there were a number of inaccuracies which portrayed the company poorly, and released a guest commentary on the story.
Friedman, managing partner of Fortus Partners, is aware of the online petition.
“We didn’t bid on occupied homes,” Friedman said. “We bid on unoccupied homes. After we did … someone broke into the house.”
Friedman stated Fortus only buys unoccupied properties through open, public sales.
“We see all these addresses around September, and we’re allowed to inspect the exterior,” Friedman explained. “We physically went to every single property, inspecting these properties from the outside and making sure that from the outside, they’re unoccupied.”
Of the corrections Fortus issued to Bridge, it states only 26 homes were occupied, not 47. According to Michigan regulations, after auctions, the buyer doesn’t immediately own the property. It takes at least 30 days for the deed to be issued. It was within this time period Fortus claims occupants illegally moved into 25 of the 26 homes.
Friedman said Fortus posted notices and asked to communicate with the occupants for five months.
“After five months, the city started fining us and threatening to take the property back if we didn’t secure it,” Friedman said.
The other occupant was William Nunley, who was also featured in the Bridge article. Bridge reported that Nunley was unaware his house was sold at the tax auction. According to Friedman, Nunley was an occupant of the previous landlord. The landlord was still collecting rent from Nunley, even after the landlord lost the house. As with the other homes, Fortus attempted to contact Nunley multiple times before posting the eviction notice.
In addition, Friedman noted the dangerous living conditions of the homes bought off of the Wayne County Auction. At the auctions, buyers purchase the property “as is,” and many of the homes Fortus purchased had health and safety hazards. Friedman asserts, above all, Fortus wanted to make sure the occupants were safe.
In regards to Nunley’s house, “There was a hole in the roof, the house looked very unsafe,” Friedman said.
Fortus was able to get in contact with Nunley after the eviction and are currently working to renovate the home and rent it back to the family.
The bigger picture
Eisenberg and Batterman are looking toward the bigger picture in their fight with the University, not just this single incident.
“This is not about them, this is not about these properties, this is not about this investment company either,” Eisenberg said. “This is about a system that is broken, that we know is broken though the research that the University has funded … and understanding that investing in this system is a poor decision.”
Both Eisenberg and Batterman said they believe the University is behaving contradictory to its public mission, which is ”to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.”
“I do so much work to nurture the relationships that I have with the United Community Housing Coalition,” Eisenberg said. “When the University does things that undermines that trust, it undermines not just the research that I’m doing, but departments across the University that are working in communities.”
Batterman said the investment also contradicts the Unversity's mission as a public institute.
“What the administration needs to be thinking about is this question of the public mission … and making sure that its activities are not merely self-interested, but also for serving the good of the state of Michigan and the people of Michigan," Batterman said.
Music, Theatre & Dance senior Brooks Eisenbise was a participant of the Semester in Detroit Program and has a different take on the issue. After experiencing Detroit, she said she believes Detroit needs to speak for itself as third-party organizations can do more harm than good.
“No matter what we do, we bring this attitude of ‘Leaders and Best’ into Detroit, and just implicitly presuming that we have the expertise to fix things or make things better.” Eisenbise said. “I think that limits us in our capacity to listen to what community members have to say.”