Detroit Free Press Slams Ypsi

Dear Detroit Free Press Editor:

Brendel Patterson of the Detroit Free Press wrote on November 29, 2002, “Although some areas look run-down, most of Ypsilanti has well-kept traditional neighborhoods with restored 19th and early 20th Century houses and commercial buildings.” http://www.freep.com/realestate/renews/hood29_20021129.htm

Let’s see, how much worse could Brendel have made this opening sentence? Let me make a couple of suggestions. Brendel could have written: “Although two people were murdered in Ypsilanti, most of the community is a pretty safe place to live.”

Or perhaps she could have said, “Although 2,000 people have fled Ypsilanti in the last 10 years, those that have stayed behind, like where they live.” My favorite is, “Although several houses were torched by arsonists last year, those that remain are well built and have many interesting architectural features.”

Brendel, this is a real estate report, not a story that is going to net you the next national award for investigative journalism. You don’t have to make your first sentence a negative on the community. I can’t think of any community in Michigan that is over 100 years old that doesn’t have some run down areas. Can you?

Why would you choose to highlight the negative and make it the most important part of your story? The first sentence of the story sets the tone for the rest the article and yet you chose to point out that some areas of Ypsilanti appear to be run-down. Of course you don’t identify those areas. In fact you don’t actually say they are run-down, you say they ‘appear’ to be run-down. You don’t state a fact; you give an opinion, your opinion. But this article doesn’t appear on the Op-Ed page. Oh no, this is in the real estate and business section of your newspaper. Your newspaper, whose motto is, “On guard for 171 years.” This sort of protection we don’t need.

Why couldn’t you write something nice like you did for Taylor, Michigan a couple of weeks ago? You wrote, “Taylor, one of metro Detroit’s older suburbs, is experiencing a resurgence with new development.”

Well, so is Ypsilanti and in some ways, given the size of the community, Ypsilanti’s resurgence is much more spectacular. Moreover, Ypsilanti is Detroit’s oldest suburb, but you seemed to have missed that fact too.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that you shouldn’t point out the negatives when writing a story. But this isn’t a hard hitting news story. The weekly real estate story is the equivalent of Les Nessman’s farm report.

There are some great things going on in Ypsilanti. The $100 Million Water Street redevelopment and two great downtowns. Ypsilanti has the second oldest historic district in Michigan and one of the largest historic districts in the country. We also have a pioneering technology zone and economic development partnership with the city of Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. We have great festivals from the Elvis Festival to the Orphan Car Show, and New Year’s Jubilee to one of the oldest Fourth of July parades in Michigan.

I would like to invite you and your editor to lunch in Ypsilanti, my treat. We can go to one of my favorite downtown restaurants. While enjoying lunch, we can surf the net on a free wireless network that will soon blanket the entire downtown area. Then we can tour one of those run-down neighborhoods and you can see the house I just moved into on Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

I hope you will take me up on my offer. I think you will find that we are pretty friendly folks out here and I would welcome the chance to show you what a gem this community really is.

Cheers!

Steve Pierce

Ypsilanti, Michigan

Here is a big surprise; neither Brendel nor her editors at the Free Press will return my calls or letters. I did get this response from another reporter at the Free Press. On December 13, 2002, Judy Rose of the Detroit Free Press wrote:

Hi, Steve Pierce –

For some reason, your e-mail to Brendel got to me. But since I’m here and she’s gone, let me tell you she was as appalled as you were by the lead on that story. She did not write it that way.

Somewhere as the piece went through the copy desk, an editor pulled what was a minor phrase and made it into the front sentence. They are not supposed to make changes that severe without checking back with the writer and Brendel has complained strongly about it.

I don’t blame you; I’d be angry too. But it was not Brendel’s doing.

By the way, I think Ypsi’s a really beautiful town. Very very long ago, I used to own three houses there, including the huge one at the corner of Washington and Washtenaw and the stucco house at the corner of Congress and Normal.

Best wishes,

Judy Rose

Free Press real estate writer

313-222-6614

Hats of to Judy for at least emailing me, but I didn’t think I was angry. Was I?

Sadly, instead of saying “we goofed”, it is always easier to blame that nameless copy editor or headline writer that screws up the perfectly written story submitted by the reporter. Of course, I never saw a retraction in the newspaper explaining the error or republishing the correct story. Nor did the Free Press fix the online edition. Perhaps the copy editor will join us for lunch as well. It is too bad Brendel can’t find the time in her busy schedule to return a phone call or email.

Contacts:

Brendel Patterson patterson@freepress.com or 313-222-8776

Ann Arbor News Quotes Opinions Rather Than Facts

Dear Khalil Hachem, Ann Arbor News

What you wrote in your article about Ozone House and supportive housing was not true. (December 10, 2003) You wrote “the organization (Ozone House) did not propose a change in the usage”, as if that was a fact. It wasn’t. It was the opinion of Ozone House staff and their attorney that there was no change in use. You should have quoted that statement as coming from Ozone House and that it was their opinion. And please, don’t blame the copy editors for goofing this up. That dog won’t hunt.

Someone should have checked the facts before the story was published. Because you stated this as a fact, it gives the impression the city is trying to get Ozone House by just willy nilly deciding who can locate downtown.

Far from it, it was city officials and local citizens that suggested other locations that would be better for this use. But Ozone House wanted to force a incompatible use in the downtown and then attacked the mayor and others for standing up for their community.

Local citizens felt that locating in a R-2 or R-3 would be a better location and even suggested locations that were currently available for purchase or rent by Ozone House. Several of these were even less cost then purchasing the downtown property and then rehabbing it.

Instead Ozone House wanted to have two apartments for homeless disabled youth ages 18-20 that Ozone House characterized as having serious and significant mental, drug and or alcohol problems. Youth that have never lived on their own except out on the street. Instead of locating these youth in a safe residential neighborhood, Ozone House wanted to locate them in a busy downtown, one block away from liquor stores, numerous bars and night clubs, a strip club, and in the middle of many other distractions such as negative influence peers, drug abuse, alcohol, crime and prostitution.

All things that these kids are trying to escape from. Ozone House wanted to put them right in the middle of it. That just doesn’t make sense.

Worse, Ozone House would provide no on-site support for these kids after 6pm Friday night and Ozone House staff would be gone until 4pm the next Monday afternoon. Oh sure, staff would be on call, if the police had a problem, they were to call the hotline in Ann Arbor. So now we have left the babysitting to the police.

There would be no assistance, guidance, or monitoring of the behavior of people that have never lived in an apartment before for almost three days. Ozone House also did not want to agree to implement one-strike and your are out policies like we do for other public housing. Ozone House did not want to require no drug or alcohol possession by these minors in the units. In fact the proposed Lease Agreement from Ozone House attorney’s violated a number of city and state laws for housing agreements.

Ozone House has never run this type of housing before, they have never been a landlord, and they also have never rehabbed an old building for residential living in a historic district. Ozone House is extremely frustrated with the city over zoning. Yet they are purchasing a building right in the heart of the historic district. Citizens tried to tell Ozone House that you don’t want to take on rehabbing a historic building in a Nationally Registered Historic District. Ozone House staff and director were told that the guidelines, hurdles, and costs are significantly higher then locating outside the historic district. But Ozone House didn’t want to listen, they just kept bulldozing forward trying to run over anyone that stood in their way, including folks that were trying to help them.

How can what Ozone House is proposing be considered safe housing in a downtown business district? It isn’t.

Knowledgeable professionals at HUD, the County and other homeless youth support agencies across the country all will tell you, that given a choice, it is better to locate supportive housing in a neighborhood rather then in a downtown business district, if that option is a available. That option was available to Ozone House, yet Ozone House decided to not take it and instead attacked the city, the community and then when they couldn’t get their way, they launched a suit against the city. So Ozone House is using public funds and donated private money from places like the United Way to sue the city that is already in tough financial times. How is that a good use of anyone’s money?

Ozone House claimed they didn’t have the money to locate in a residential neighborhood, but they have the money to sue the city.

If you asked Ozone House if they tried to locate housing elsewhere in the city, they will tell you no. Citizens in the community even offered to help, for free, to review finances and budgets to see if there was a way that Ozone House could afford to locate in a neighborhood that would be safer for the people Ozone House says they are trying to help. Ozone House refused and instead went on the attack.

What is a fact is Ozone House applied for a special use permit and it was denied. What is a fact is that Ozone House failed to disclose the nature of the services they were going to provide and omitted the nature of their services in the application to the city, written correspondence to the city, and testimony before the city boards. Ozone House said that this proposed housing was just like every other apartment in the downtown. Ozone House said that they were going to spend $300,000 renovating this old building and fixing up the apartments.

In fact that is far from the truth. If you look at the HUD grant application, less then $100,000 of the total over $1/2 million dollars proposed to be spent on this project was going towards renovating the property. Just 10% of the $360,000 HUD grant would go to rehabilitation of the building. The rest of the money, almost $400,000 was going to pay for supportive services for Ozone House Staff and programs. You can’t fix the façade on the building for $39,000 much less rehab the entire building including two apartments. I know, I used to own the old Kresge building. I know what sort of quotes I was getting for roof, façade, windows, and things like boilers, plumbing, and updated electrics.

This entire grant is almost 25% of Ozone House’s annual budget. So this grant money is a major portion of Ozone House’s budget for the next several years. Yet, much of this grant money was not even going to be spent in Ypsilanti.

What Ozone House was proposing was a three (3) year, $513,000 project to house two people. How come no one wrote anything about that? Do the math, that is over $7,100 a month for each person living in each apartment. That is $237 per night. You can put them up at the Campus Inn in one of their most expensive rooms for less than $200 a night and they can have maid service and clean sheets and towels every day. And you still save over $80,000 to spend on other projects.

Ozone House says these apartments are just like any other apartment downtown. Besides the fact that I don’t know of an apartment in downtown Ypsilanti that are $7,000 a month, I don’t know of any other landlord in the downtown that provides this type of social services for their tenants that Ozone House is proposing or that has the restrictions on tenancy that Ozone House is requiring. So it isn’t fair to say that this is just like any other housing in the downtown and that no change in use was proposed by the applicant. The facts don’t bear that out.

All you had to do was look at the HUD grant application and the County application to understand what Ozone House told city officials and the ZBA and the Planning Commission was very different from what they told HUD and the County.

It was the opinion of the ZBA, Planning Commission, Ozone House neighbors, City officials and others in the community that this was a change of use. Ozone House disagrees and they are suing. You should have said in your article that it was opinion not fact about the change of use.

The current use is unrestricted commercial rental housing which requires the current owner to abide by the Fair Housing Act, City Ordinances and the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. Ozone House proposed use was to restrict the housing to young adults, 18-21 that are homeless with significant disabilities, as defined by HUD and Ozone House in the grant application.

The proposed housing is restrictive by its nature and criteria for tenancy. It may also be in violation of the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance, an ordinance that some Ozone House past and present staff members and board members supported and fought to get approved several years ago. Khalil, could not rent one of those apartments from Ozone House, but if the current landlord put up a rent sign, they could not deny you based on your age, ethnicity, or occupation.

So the proposed use is clearly different from the existing. And there are many other differences as well. Now Ozone House is saying that the Non-Discrimination ordinance should not apply to them. You can’t have it both ways and demand that other landlords must abide by the non-discrimination ordinance and then have Ozone House acting as ‘just another landlord’, their words not mine, and yet they are exempt from the non-discrimination ordinance.

Ozone House argues that they shouldn’t be held to the same rules as everyone else. That because they are a social service agency, the city ordinances including a ordinance that says you will not discriminate based on age, should apply to Ozone House. Ozone House claims that a master plan that says that social service agencies should not be located in a downtown district should not apply to them. Ozone House argues that a use not defined in the zoning plan which requires a special use permit should not apply to them.

In fact, in their testimony by Ozone House’s attorney they argued that if the city granted an exemption to Ozone House, the city would in no way give up the right to regulate other applicants that also wanted to locate supportive housing in the downtown district at a later date. The zoning ordinance is quite clear on this. If the city allowed Ozone House to locate downtown, every other social service agency would then argue that their proposed use is no different from Ozone House and that they should be permitted downtown as well.

The problem I have with your story is your are confusing facts with opinion. Ozone House gave you their opinion on their definition of the use. It is fair to report that opinion as it makes the story meaningful. But you should have stated that it was their opinion and that the ZBA and Planning Commission disagreed with their opinion and the ZBA and Planning Commission felt the proposed use was different.

The story was not fair and balanced and it did not cover both sides of the issue as it should.

If you write about this story again, I hope you will take the time to get the minutes and review the testimony both written and oral from both the ZBA and Planning Commission from all meetings. I also encourage you to get complete copies of grant applications and other documents that Ozone House submitted to HUD and the County. And get them from HUD, not Ozone House. The copies Ozone House provided the city had been redacted and were missing key pages that to this day they will not provide. Then talk to folks like the owners of the Restaurant and Dry Cleaners next to Ozone House on Huron. That way you will get a broader view then just Ozone Houses on this issue.

All I ask of any reporter is to report on the facts, be fair, and get the facts right. Unquoted opinions give the reader the impression that an item is a fact. If someone gives you an opinion, then you should make it clear to the reader that it is an opinion and then quote the source.

Ann Arbor News Confuses HDC

December 10, 2002 by  
Filed under News

Dear Ann Arbor News,

There was a letter in the December 9, 2002 Ann Arbor News criticizing the Historic District Commission (HDC). The Ann Arbor News should have clarified which HDC the writer is talking about. I am assuming the writer is referring to the Ann Arbor HDC. I have not had any direct dealings with the Ann Arbor HDC, but I can tell you from my experience, working with the Ypsilanti HDC has been a real pleasure. Oh sure, we have had some disagreements and I know there are other owners that have had bad experiences with the Ypsilanti HDC.

Yet, I find the biggest mistake most people make in front of the HDC, whether it is Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti, is the attitude that they bring to the meeting. If you come in with the attitude that this is my house and I can do what ever I darn well please and who the heck are you to tell me what I can or can’t do, I find that that most of those people have a bad experience.

The second biggest mistake is not being prepared. Many applicants do not know what has been approved in the past or even have a basic understanding of historic preservation. If you don’t know, ask. You will find most HDC board members are willing to meet with you to talk about your project and help you address any questions that you may have. You will find the same from the city officials tasked to work with the HDC. They are a wealth of information, yet most property owners never seek out city staff for help with their project. In Ypsilanti, the city’s website (http://www.cityofypsilanti.com) is a great source of information including applications and important fact sheets that every property owner should read before applying for a permit. Go to their home page and Select Boards and Commissions and then follow the link to the Historic District Commission.

You should also talk with your neighbors. Learn from them what strategies have worked and what has failed. I also strongly urge you to go to a couple of meetings before you plan to present your project. By looking at what other people present, you can learn a great deal about how to make an effective presentation and the type of questions that might be asked. Don’t worry about being nervous, this isn’t a test of your public speaking skills. If you get nervous, stop, take a breath, and then move on.

Go in to the meeting with the attitude that you want to learn and listen. The HDC and city can save you from making huge mistakes that could cost you a great deal of money if you take a moment to listen. And always, be polite. By simply saying please and thank you, you would be surprised just how far you can get. At one meeting I even brought some homemade cookies. The chair of the HDC said that in some 20 plus years, no one has ever brought cookies.

I am not suggesting that everyone should bring cookies but I think it points out the most serious problem that folks have with the HDC; they forget that these people are your neighbors. Every member on the board lives in your community, perhaps even on your street.

The HDC board is volunteers who donate their time to serve on a board to make their community better. It is hard work and long hours. In Ypsilanti they get no money. To help speed projects along, the Ypsilanti HDC even meets twice a month. The board members do it for the reward of seeing a beautiful old home being restored and passing along to a new generation of owners some knowledge about the heritage of the community. They are regular citizens and your neighbors. So treat them just like you would if they were coming over to your house for tea and cookies.

People ask me why we need historic districts. We don’t. No community needs an HDC. However, it is reported nationally that a home in a historic district is generally worth 20% more at resale then a similar home outside the district. So as much as you want to complain about the HDC, when your house is on the market for just two days before it is sold, remember it is because you live in a historic district that makes your house so desirable.

Still, the HDC can do more to help citizens. In Ypsilanti, they should publish a welcome kit and historic district guidelines that are sent to every new property owner. They also should have an early session once a month that meets for 30 or 45 minutes before the regular session. This early session should be an informal meeting where people can come in and ask questions or present a study item that requires no action.

The HDC can also speed up meetings by spending less time trying to help or correct deficiencies of a proposal during the meeting. If the proposal doesn’t meet the guidelines, the HDC should delay approval and then give the applicant two options. One, they can wait until the end of the meeting where they can come back and talk further about their project or they can meet with board or city staff members at a later date and then come back at the next HDC meeting.

Often I see the HDC trying to help people pick colors or order a door from a catalog. That desire to be helpful often prolongs the meeting for everyone else that is there trying to get a proposal approved. It is human nature to want to help someone that is struggling. Undertaking a restoration of an old home is no easy feat. Yet the board meeting is not the right place to try to teach someone the difference between a sill and a sash.

Board members also need to be careful to not interject personal opinion into decisions. I have been to a number of meetings over the last three years and sometimes I see perfectly acceptable proposals denied for what seems more that the board members didn’t like the color or shape, rather then based on whether or not the proposal would have been appropriate for the time period or style of the house.

HDC’s are not perfect but then nor are some homeowners. If we can remember that we are all neighbors and friends trying to improve our community and make it a desirable place to live, then perhaps the HDC experience will be more pleasant and less confrontational. Of course, if you still find that your project is still not approved, you could always tell them that you are taking back the cookies.