Ann Arbor News Gets Facts Wrong About Ozone House

Dear Christine Uthoff, Ann Arbor News

Your article (Needed: Creativity from city, January 19, 2004) misses the point and sadly contains a number of errors. I wish you would have worked harder to get the story right and check your facts before you went to press.

You wrote that a county judge said that Ozone House could keep doing what it is already doing.

That is not true; Judge Morris made no ruling on what Ozone House is currently doing in the building. The ruling was about a proposed new use where Ozone House was going to convert two existing apartments to a new use which are apartments that are age restricted for permanent supportive housing for disabled homeless youth ages 18 to 20. There was no ruling on existing Ozone House activities as you said in your article. That was never in dispute. In fact, I don’t even think the court has issued an order, have you seen one? You made it appear that the suit was about whether Ozone House could continue to operate the drop in center. That wasn’t what the suit was about at all.

You wrote that there was a conflict between Ozone House and city officials. I know of no conflict between city officials and Ozone House. The city was simply enforcing their master plan and reflecting the Hyett-Palma study that was paid for by the citizens of Ypsi which recommended that social services in the downtown area should be reduced. I was recently told that this plan, from some 13 years ago, was even supported by the Ann Arbor News in an editorial where they said that the Hyett-Palma study and the planning work that went in afterwards were positive step towards rebuilding the downtown. But this all happened long before I moved to Ypsilanti in 1999.

You stated that the housing was for ages 18 to 21. That is also not correct. Ozone House in their HUD application said ages 17-20 and Ozone House has indicated in previous testimony, since these apartments would require a lease, the tenants must be of age and they indicated the housing was for young adults, 18 to 20.

You wrote that Ozone House wants to buy a 36,000 square foot building. That is stunning if that is true. According to the Ann Arbor News, the new Ann Arbor homeless shelter is 23,000sf. If what you are reporting is true, the Ozone House proposal would be 50% larger than the Ann Arbor Homeless Shelter and this would be right in the heart of our downtown in a building larger than our own city hall. This would be a disaster for our downtown of just 10 blocks to locate such a massive social services facility right in the middle of the community. If this is just a typo, someone should have checked before this went to press because I have already received calls from concerned citizens worried about the size of this project.

What Ozone House told the city was far different from what you reported. They told the city they wanted to buy a 3,400 square foot building on North Huron.

You said in your article that the city should be adopting regulations that make it easy to fill empty buildings. If you have suggestions on regulations that should be fixed or adopted or any existing regulations that are preventing people from filling empty buildings, let me know what they should be. I am just one person but if there are rules that should be changed, let’s work together and change them. But I haven’t heard from you or anyone at the News make suggestions on changing regulations to make it easier to build downtown. Don’t be shy, speak up.

No one is saying that the Ozone House Drop-In Center had to leave. Yet what Ozone House was proposing was to expand their services in the downtown and begin offering permanent housing for disabled homeless youth. This is a new use for the building and a new service not currently offered downtown by Ozone House or any other agency. The restrictions that Ozone House is proposing may violate the Fair Housing Act and the City’s anti-discrimination ordinance. That means their proposed use is different from the existing use as the current owner may not discriminate based on age, mental health, or income.

These permanent housing apartments are a new service that Ozone House has never before offered in Ypsilanti or Ann Arbor. Ozone House has also never rehabbed any downtown buildings and has no experience of working in a registered historic district. Moreover, this new use would take property off the tax roles, something we can ill afford at this point.

All I ever said is that I agree with what the citizens of Ypsilanti said in their master plan and in the Hyett-Palma study, that is we don’t need more social services expanding or offering new social services in the downtown district. There is plenty of room for expanded services elsewhere in the city and surrounding area. Ypsilanti by percentage of available space has more social services in our downtown than any other community in the county. Ypsilanti also has more social service agencies in the city than any other community in the county. Yet we don’t have the majority of the problems. Historically Ypsilanti has been the dumping ground because land was cheap and code enforcement was weak. Well that has changed and that has been a change for the better.

You talked in the past about the need for balance and diversity in the community, I agree. There has to be a balance between non-profits and other uses. Right now there are too many social services and that imbalance is causing other would be residents and taxpayers to leave the community. Look at all the other non-profits that are just within the one block of Ozone House. No one is saying that they need to leave, all we are saying is as a community we do not want more. That is our right as a community. We should be able to say where business and services can be located and the courts have ruled that communities have the right to have zoning plans as long as they make attempts to provide locations for everyone.

There are numerous locations in the community that are within easy walking distance of major transportation and many of these places would be cheaper to buy and refurbish. So why is it that Ozone House can force an incompatible use in our downtown and not be sensitive, and in fact ignore, the needs and the long term plans of the community. Show me where Ozone House has tried to work with the community. They haven’t. All they have done is kick and yell and scream about how unfair it is in Ypsilanti, but they haven’t even been willing to sit down and talk about alternatives. For Ozone House, there are no alternatives. They have told the community, it must be downtown and there can be no other option and if you don’t like it, we will sue.

I simply suggested that there might be better locations for the NEW services that Ozone House was proposing and I even offered to show them several properties that are inside the City that Ozone House could use. The way Ozone House reacted; you would have thought I sprouted horns on my head. I bet Ozone House didn’t tell you that they had been offered another location that would be cheaper, is ready now, is no farther way from the bus routes than the location downtown and is in a neighborhood, not the middle of the downtown business district. I doubt anyone from Ozone House ever told you that the community had tried to talk to them about other alternatives.

Ozone House, to whip up support said that nameless city officials were trying to bar Ozone House and kick out the Drop in Center. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, yet here is a surprise, no one from the News ever contacted me or other people from the community to ask what was said. The News only listened to what Ozone House was saying and never confirmed what Ozone House reported. You assumed the worst of the community and didn’t get your facts straight. Khalil did the same thing a month ago when he reported on Ozone House and he failed to talk to anyone but the Ozone House folks. Not once was anyone from the News ever at any of the public meetings, business meetings or neighborhood meetings to talk about this issue.

What all started this was when I asked this very simple question. What is a best location to locate a home for disabled homeless youth that with has little to no direct or daily supervision? Ozone House has said that these tenants will have serious and significant mental, drug and or alcohol problems. They are youth that have never lived on their own except out on the street. So what is the best place for this type of housing?

Should it be located in a neighborhood where the youth live in a home and the tenants get involved in the community? Should it be in a home where you can’t possess drugs or alcohol? Where you cannot have parties or overnight guests? A home environment which says the tenants must attend several neighborhood meetings each year and participate in neighborhood events like Ypsi Pride. A home where to be a tenant you must sweep the leaves in the fall and shovel the snow during the winter. Should these youth be required to seek and maintain employment or lacking employment volunteer in the community?

Apparently not.

Instead the professionals at Ozone House want to have two unsupervised apartments for homeless disabled youth ages 18-20 located in the heart of a downtown district that is also a registered historic district. Instead of locating these youth in a safe residential neighborhood, Ozone House wants to locate them in a busy downtown, just blocks away from liquor stores, numerous bars and night clubs, a block from the largest strip club in the county, and in the middle of many other distractions such as negative influence peers, drug abuse, alcohol, crime and prostitution.

That doesn’t make sense. I have talked to homeless and housing professionals from all over the country. They have universally said that given a choice, downtown apartment or residential neighborhood apartment, you have a better chance of success with an apartment located in a residential neighborhood. But no one at Ozone House wants to talk about what is best for the kids. Instead they want to talk about how the community is picking on them and have said that I was ‘mean’ to them.

Ozone House flat out rejected any consideration of adopting a policy of one strike for alcohol or drug possession even though both activities would be illegal for young adults 18 to 20. Ozone House would not even consider a “no alcohol” policy for their tenants. Ozone House would not bar overnight guests or parties. Ozone House would not consider a requirement that they don’t house past violent offenders or sexual predators. Ozone House staff even told the community during a public meeting that if there were problems with parties that we should call the police. So Ozone House’s solution to out of control parties and tenants is to have the Ypsilanti police baby sit Ozone House tenants.

I heard from homeless professionals in Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco, if there is a choice it is always better to locate in a neighborhood than a downtown business district. I bet Ozone House didn’t tell you this either. There are a lot of things Ozone House is not telling you.

I spoke to Jeannette Harris with the Detroit office of Housing and Urban Development, the group that is funding Ozone House for this project, and she agrees with the professionals from around the country. A homeless disabled youth has a better chance of success living in a neighborhood environment, rather than in a downtown business district that is so close to the problems these kids are trying to get away from. She said she didn’t know that there were other alternatives for housing in Ypsilanti and in fact admitted it had been years since she was last in Ypsilanti.

You said that the community must be creative. What the community proposed to Ozone House was creative. It gave Ozone House the ability to locate their services in the community and it provides a better location for their young adults, and it helped us continue our positive steps of transforming our downtown. It was creative and it was inclusive. But Ozone House didn’t want to listen and instead felt it was easier to demonize Ypsilanti residents and business owners and refused on several occasions to even discuss alternatives.

I have been told by staffers at other non-profits in the community, that by creating an ‘evil bad guy’ as Ozone House has when talking about Ypsilanti, that it galvanizes the true believers, the hardcore Ozone House supporters into contributing more money. In fact some non-profits routinely use this strategy to increase donations. I have privately been told that donations to Ozone House have increased since they began their lawsuit against the city of Ypsilanti. So it makes sense what Ozone House is doing, but it does nothing to address the needs of the Ypsilanti community.

What the community proposed to Ozone House was creative and it meant that Ozone House could do what they want if they would try to work with the community. But Ozone House didn’t want to listen or work with the community. Heck they even refused to meet with community members to work out a plan and review budgets. I am sure Ozone House didn’t tell you that they were offered other options. I am sure that Ozone House ‘forgot’ to tell you that they rejected numerous offers to meet with community members, and they conveniently failed to mention that some of the options proposed were cheaper than their proposed solution for renovating a historic building in downtown Ypsilanti.

How crazy is this, Ozone House is going to buy a building in the middle of a Historic District and they propose to renovate the building for $39,000. That is what is budgeted in the HUD grant, only $39,000 to rehab the entire building. I used to own the Kresge building; I was getting quotes of upwards of $2,500 per window to replace the windows with windows that met both building codes and historic requirements. They will spend $10,000 just on the heating system and easily twice that on electrical. Talk to developers and ask, what are the costs to rehab a building in downtown Ypsi or Ann Arbor? They will tell you that you should budget at a minimum a $100 per square foot. That means Ozone House should be budgeting $350,000 for rehabbing the building and that doesn’t include the acquisition costs.

Go ask any reputable developer that has rehabbed historic properties in Ann Arbor and let me know what they tell you it should cost. Most projects in the Ypsilanti historic district run from $85 to $225 per square foot depending on the level of finish.

Ozone House simply does not have enough money to rehab a building that even they admit is in very bad shape.

Then take a look at the overall budget for this project. Ozone House has asked for and received from HUD, Washtenaw County and MSHDA over $500,000 for a three year program. This is money to house two kids for three years and to also provide other support unrelated to supporting these kids. It is in the HUD application; you can come by and read it any time you want. That is over $7,000 per kid per month. For that kind of money you could put them up at the Campus Inn and still have some $80,000 left over after three years. How come no one is talking about $200-a-night housing for homeless kids? Even if you remove all the fluff for the ‘other’ support services, and just look a the lease dollars in only the HUD grant, Ozone House is still spending $3,600 a month to house two people in two apartments. That is $1,800 a month for a single apartment.

You said we need open minds; this sort of budget is just mind blowing. I wish I could live in a $1,800 a month apartment. Part of the problem with the numbers is Ozone House has never been truthful about they were actually going to do. They told the city one thing, they told the county a very different story. Ozone House told HUD they want to house up to four residents, the Ozone House lawyer in court and in front of city boards said there were just two residents. Ozone House told HUD they want to buy the building to provide permanent housing. Ozone House on the Washtenaw Housing Alliance website says they are purchasing the building so as to secure a permanent location for the drop in center. Ozone House said that these units were like any other apartment in the community and there would be no daily supervision. In the HUD grant, Ozone House said that these tenants would need extensive assistance including being walked to the bus stop each day. Ozone House told the city that leases would be 1-year terms consistent with the current leases. But Ozone House told county officials that there would be open ended month to month leases and they would also not require a damage deposit. The story seems to always change depending on what Ozone House thinks you want to hear. It has caused some in the community to become distrustful of what Ozone House is saying because they have never been open and honest with the community from the first day.

You said we need creativity from the city. We are creative, we are open, and we do listen. But what we need are creative non-profits that are willing to listen to the community and realize that they have to be just as committed to their host community as they are to the individuals they serve. As I told the Ozone House director, we want a group that is willing to work with the community and develop a plan that meets the needs of the community. I have called Ozone House numerous times and left messages and tried to invite them to lunch or dinner, they won’t even return my calls. I even gave my card to Ozone House’s attorney, who is also a board member, after a city meeting and said that we should get together and talk. We can work out a solution that we can take together to the community that can meet the needs of the young adults Ozone House says they want to support and still value the host community. I am still waiting for that call.

Christine, it is too bad you didn’t research your story better. It is too bad that you just took what Ozone House said, and didn’t get input from others in Ypsilanti. It is too bad you got so many of the facts wrong in the story. These errors distract the reader from the real point you were trying to make.

You can’t be creative if people aren’t willing to talk and listen. Ozone House is not interested in doing either. So I make the same offer to you as I made to Ozone House, come over, we will have lunch here at the house and we can talk.