First In, Last Out
East Ann Arbor joins the recovery.
by Vickie Elmer
From the July, 2013 issue
When residents describe East Ann Arbor, they use terms such as peaceful, quiet, and tranquil. The neighborhoods around the intersection of Packard and Platt have block after block of small, neat homes, many built in the 1940s and 1950s, set on tree-lined streets with names like Springbrook and Fernwood. Residents head to Banfield's, a dark old-fashioned sports bar and restaurant, for a beer, or grab breakfast at Achilles diner.
All that peaceful domesticity was interrupted one morning earlier this year, when a longtime resident pulled out a rifle to protest being thrown out of the two-story brown-shingled home he had owned and lived in for more than twenty-five years. That eviction on Rosedale Avenue was being handled by Judy Bell.
"He stood there with his gun at his side ... He didn't know what else to do. He thought 'I've got to save my property,'" says Bell, a court officer. She notes that he never pointed the rifle at her or the eviction crew.
Bell called the police, and with the help of a neighbor the standoff was resolved peacefully. But only the drama was unusual: in recent years, foreclosures have been all too frequent in East Ann Arbor. Foreclosed homes and condos represented more than 30 percent of all sales in the area around the intersection of Packard and Platt last year, triple the rate in Ann Arbor as a whole, according to an Observer analysis produced by Realtor Kevin Duke.
They hit a side of the city that has struggled for years. Where BMWs and Priuses shelter in garages on the north and west sides of town, in East Ann Arbor, you're more likely to see worn-out Chevrolet pickups and rust-splattered Fords sitting in driveways. In the fall of 2012, about 38 percent of students at Allen Elementary, nearly 50 percent at Pittsfield, and 90 percent at Mitchell were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.
To be sure, other pockets of the city have experienced foreclosure, falling home prices,
and protracted poverty in recent years. Yet nowhere else in the city can homebuyers regularly snag a single-family home for less than $100,000. Last year, twenty homes in East Ann Arbor sold for five figures--and that excludes condominiums and townhouses. Three of them were on Rosedale: 3303 for $58,000 (right next door to the one where police aided the eviction); 3195 for $70,000; and 3335 for $32,500--the lowest-priced home sold in Ann Arbor last year.
Of course, 3335 Rosedale was a tiny house with serious problems. Yet compared to the rest of the city, all of East Ann Arbor is a bargain. Duke, who produces the Observer's monthly Home Sales Map, calculates that the median price of all single-family homes sold in the city last year was $235,000. In East Ann Arbor, it was just $127,000.
The southeast side's lower prices reflect its history. Some older residents interviewed in a 1989 Observer article recalled it as a poor area, with shacks and shanties, but also sociable, with families getting together to play bingo and cards or to go ice skating. Starting in the 1930s and increasingly after World War II, developers began to subdivide the remaining farms and fill them with modest bungalows and ranch houses.
Originally part of Pittsfield Township, East Ann Arbor became an independent city in 1947. Centered on the commercial strip at Packard and Platt, it was a place where plumbers and autoworkers lived down the street from firefighters and a few professionals. Many worked at auto factories in Ypsilanti, Wayne, and elsewhere. All became citizens of Ann Arbor in 1956, when East Ann Arbor agreed to be annexed by its larger neighbor.
The area's blue-collar workers were hit especially hard by the recent recession and the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler. As labor contracts were renegotiated, "wages went from something like thirty dollars an hour with benefits to fourteen dollars an hour with no benefits," Washtenaw County treasurer Catherine McClary said at the time. "We're really seeing a tremendous slide in median income." People who once earned good livings took part-time jobs as handymen or waitresses.
As far back as 2007, an Observer article noted a rash of foreclosures on Easy Street. Even after the rest of the city began to emerge from the real estate recession last year, the southeast side continued to struggle. But as the local housing market heats up, the southeast side, too, is showing signs of new life.
This year, many Ann Arbor homes are receiving multiple offers. There are "tons of buyers waiting on the right house," says Keller Williams agent Missy Caulk. Some people moving to town are even making offers on homes that they have seen only via a real estate agent's iChat tour: "If they wait to book a flight, it will be gone."
That sense of urgency is greatest for homes within walking distance of downtown or Michigan Stadium, but a lack of inventory is driving strong sales in almost every part of the city, Caulk says--including East Ann Arbor, whose small bungalows and tiny brick ranches, she believes, are ripe for price appreciation. Especially popular are homes on Parkwood and Bellwood, where owners have updated their kitchen or added a room. "The streets are really beautiful, with mature trees ... They have no trouble selling," says Caulk. She and her late husband lived in the area in the 1980s, buying a small place on a land contract; as their family grew, they moved to Saline in 1991.
Kay Drake has lived through many ups and downs in East Ann Arbor. She's lived there her entire life, most of it in a home built by her parents. She raised two children in that little three-bedroom house on Canterbury and is planning a second career from there after early retirement from the University of Michigan last year.
"My children went to the same elementary school as I did," the Allen School grad says proudly. But the neighborhood dynamics shifted, as moms took jobs and the city cut back on programming at Buhr Park. Her children had fewer choices, and Drake was more cautious about allowing them to roam as freely as she had.
"I adore that little house. I am so thankful" for it, she says. With her children grown, she shares it today with a roommate, a practice she started almost ten years ago when her finances got shaky.
She kept her home through some very hard times, after she was divorced and during another stretch more recently. The home's value peaked in early 2006 at around $190,000 and dropped all the way to an estimated $115,000 in early 2012, according to Zillow, a real estate information website. Its recent valuation: $153,777.
Lately, "I see more people out taking better care" of their property, Drake says. The foreclosed home on Rosedale was sold for $32,500 "as-is," with no guarantees. Neighbors say the tiny 900-square-foot home has foundation problems and other structural issues and could be considered a tear-down. But in recent weeks the roof and windows have been replaced, and a huge purple trash bin indicates the new owner is hard at work on the inside.
Just across the street is the home whose owner confronted Judy Bell. No one answered when she and her two assistants showed up, so one of them began to drill out the lock to get in. Then the man opened the door, holding a gun. He was silent and didn't point it at them, but he wouldn't let them in either. So Bell summoned police at 10:12 a.m. on Jan. 30.
According to the police report, the homeowner, Thomas Ward, "was on the front porch, pacing with the long gun in his possession." Three police officers showed up, asked Bell and her crew to leave the yard, and called for assistance. They got out their own long guns--but also connected with a neighbor across the street. Barb Gonyon knew Ward and offered to call him to see if she could convince him to come outside.
Ward came out and was taken to the U-M psychiatric emergency room for evaluation. The report notes that police confiscated a crossbow with a scope and eight arrows, a .22-caliber Marlin rifle, a .30-caliber Remington rifle, and a third rifle, in pieces, they found in a case in the back seat of Ward's car.
Ward told police that he had once owned the home outright but had borrowed money to add rooms in the back. Gonyon says he told her he that hadn't paid anything on the mortgage in about three years. When ABN Amro Mortgage foreclosed on June 30, 2011, he owed $71,578, a total that may also have included late fees and other assessments.
Michigan law requires a six-month grace period during which homeowners can repay the balance due and reclaim their home; Ward got an extra year before Bell came calling.
Gonyon says that Ward was something of a loner but also a good handyman. After Bell's crew removed his possessions from the house, a few neighbors collected his bed and a few other personal items and stored them for him in their garages.
"He lived here for years and years and years ... and he lost everything," she says. After he returned from the ER, Gonyon invited him to live with her temporarily. He's since moved out to a friend's home in another neighborhood, but still comes back to mow her grass.
Painful as it is, foreclosure can also start a new chapter. Sarah and John McCallum bought a foreclosed home on Springbrook in 2001. The yellow house was in bad shape, but after $40,000 worth of renovations it's been their home ever since. Sometimes "you get lucky," Sarah says. Her street is filling with young families, including a few whose homes were fixed up with help from Habitat for Humanity.
While the bargain house on Rosedale was being gutted in June, a sale was pending on Ward's former house. With three bedrooms and one-and-a-half baths and a large garage, it was listed for $109,900.
Despite such turnover there's also a growing sense of community, with locals organizing a farmers market each Tuesday evening at Buhr Park (see Events). And then there's the annual Burgers on Bellwood event, a neighborhood party that Jeff Irwin and his wife, Kathryn Loomis, have held for six or seven years.
They moved to East Ann Arbor right after graduating from the University of Michigan in 2000, living first in a condo in Pittsfield Village, and then, as their family grew, buying a home with more room for entertaining. "We circled a weekend on the calendar ... and got to know our new neighbors," says Irwin, who's now a state representative in Lansing. They make it an annual tradition, barbecuing burgers from Knights Market, about forty-five pounds worth this year.
Irwin says the area still has a few foreclosed homes that "have not been properly looked after" while awaiting new owners. But he's encouraged that countywide, foreclosure rates are "waning." (County clerk Larry Kestenbaum counted only sixty-eight from January through May, the lowest total since 2006.) And Irwin likes East Ann Arbor for its convenient shopping and restaurants along Packard and Wash-tenaw and its diversity of people. "I put my two kids in a wagon and drag them to a supermarket or coffee shop," he says.
Kay Drake recently took a job at Ace Hardware, where she enjoys seeing locals coming in, whether they're there for home repair items or something else. And she's found friendship and a family of sorts at Banfield's. Her son even wrote a thank-you to his "family at Banfield's" in his high school yearbook.
"They'd do anything for me," Drake says of her Banfield friends. As we sit in a booth talking about her neighborhood, people greet her by name. They're getting ready for golf season and starting to watch for coupons to make the eighteen holes more affordable.
When asked about their wish lists for East Ann Arbor and its residents, Drake's long-time friend Dave Bloxan mentions more local businesses and improved city services--he still misses the library branch that moved to Eisenhower Parkway.
Drake's request is simpler. "I wish it could be a little more economically sound," she says, "so residents would not have to struggle so hard."
[Originally published in July, 2013.]