Cityscape

Derringer: In Nicole Curtis vs. the Detroit Land Bank, who to root for? The house

April 08, 2021, 11:12 PM by  Nancy Derringer

Where Nicole Curtis goes, drama follows. You can’t really dig into the clip files on her without turning up lots of stories that have nothing, or little, to do with subway tile or hardwood floor restoration or other aspects of her life as a professional home restorer – the time she had her purse stolen (which led to follow-ups that it was actually a “work bag”), the time she was escorted out of a Roseville City Council meeting, the thing with the photos of her Brush Park rehab, and now, her latest beef with the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

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The East Grand Boulevard house at the center of the dispute (Photo: Nancy Derringer)

“I have this tendency to piss people off,” Curtis has said.

At issue is one of the “Rehab Addict” host’s current projects, a red-brick East Grand Boulevard pile in need of an even bigger pile of cash to restore. You can read the details many places, but it basically goes like this:

1) Curtis buys the house for $17,000 from a private party.
2) More than a year later, the Detroit Land Bank Authority says hold on, we actually own that house, not you.
3) Negotiations break down, and Curtis files suit, claiming she’s already paid taxes and other sunk costs totalling around $60,000, and argues it should be hers.

The Land Bank says Curtis' investment really doesn’t matter; a deed is a deed, and it, not Curtis, owns the house. As Mayor Duggan said when asked about it later, “She got scammed.”

Curtis and her lawyer don’t dispute every bit of this. Curtis admits her not-quite purchase of the house was accomplished via quitclaim, a legal avenue best confined to when your grandmother wants to sell you the ancestral cottage for a dollar, and you are absolutely positively sure that no unpaid roofer has slapped a lien on the place.

In a recent interview, Curtis defended the practice, saying that the majority of the cash deals for similar rundown housing she buys and rehabs are completed this way. And anyway, her lawyer, Jim Rasor, adds, a title search wouldn’t have turned anything up, because in the dispute that landed the deed in the Land Bank’s pile, along with tens of thousands of others it holds, they failed to register it with the county recorder for...476 days. 

It seems pertinent to add here that the Land Bank isn’t commenting on this case – pending litigation, etc. – and Curtis is commenting in what seems to be her customary way, to the media, and loudly.

In the midst of all this, I called a source who is pretty well versed on this dispute, and they said, in essence, a plague on both their houses – that Curtis describes herself well when she says she tends to piss people off, but the Land Bank can be an absolute nightmare to deal with.

“So this is, what? A drama queen vs. a Soviet bureaucracy?” I asked.

“That,” they said, “is exactly what it is.”

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Nicole Curtis (Photo: HGTV)

The Land Bank, they and others say, is a mess, governed by the law and its own million rules, which it can only break when the mayor or city council wants it to. Look how quickly things can move when the FCA plant expansion is involved, or the Ilitch organization. But one woman and one falling-apart house? A deed left unrecorded for more than a year? Take a number.

Take a drive past the house in question at 451 East Grand Boulevard. It’s a familiar Detroit tragedy, a parade of once-gracious residences – it’s just a couple blocks from the Belle Isle bridge, after all – long since chopped into apartments or converted to nursing homes or other institutions. There is potential there, to be sure, such good bones, but stand in front of 451 and gaze upon this money pit, with its broken or missing windows, plywood front door, chewed-out soffits, mossy roof and more expensive headaches. Curtis herself estimates it as a $500,000 rehab, and I doubt she’s exaggerating.

The Land Bank would like to sell 451 for, get this, $40,000. Forty thousand! Where is King Solomon when you need him? I will raise his Sword of Wisdom and Justice and decree: The Land Bank should let Curtis have this for $1, or $5, or $100, and with a development deal that will give her the time she needs to bring this thing back the right way, not the standard six months. Curtis could maybe promise to work on her people skills. It seems insane to get lawyers involved any further; it’s like two bald men fighting over a comb.

Otherwise, the city will suffer the sort of bad publicity that inevitably happens when you cross a woman whose activities are followed not just by home renovators but People magazine, too.

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