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Hamtramck inches closer to closing ugly chapter

Sarah Hulett
Michgian Radio

After she signs her name on closing documents a few dozen times tomorrow, Tisha Friday will get a set of keys to her brand new house in Hamtramck.

Friday is part of the plaintiffs class in what some say is the longest-running housing discrimination lawsuit in the country. And with every closing, Hamtramck inches a little closer to closing an ugly chapter in its history.

“I’m just excited. It’s just beautiful,” Friday said after she stepped into her brand new house for a walk-through prior to closing.

There are hardwood floors in the living room, granite countertops in the kitchen, and a full bath on the first floor.

“Full bath, wow," she said, running her hand along the ceramic tile. "Never had a full bathroom on the first floor.”

Friday is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit brought against the city in 1968. And this home is part of the city’s effort, ordered by a federal court four decades ago, to make things right.

The branches of Friday’s family tree stretch all across this city – with aunts, uncles and cousins still living here. And her family’s roots are deep. Her great-great grandfather shows up in the city’s 1910 Census records, having moved north from Alabama.

But for a family with such history here, the city certainly sent a message they weren’t wanted. Friday’s grandmother, Jean Vaughn, lived in the Denton-Miller neighborhood, one of three heavily African-American areas the city essentially abandoned in the 1960s.

The city quit maintaining the streets and the sewers, and shut off the water to some blocks -- not-so-gently prodding residents in those neighborhoods to pack up and move out so the city could raze their homes in the name of urban renewal.

On a drive through Hamtramck, Jason Friedmann points out one of the areas the city cleared for development. Friedmann is the director of community and economic development for the city.

“They wanted to build a new city hall and commercial area," Friedmann says of the stretch along Joseph Campau, south of Holbrook. "The city hall never happened, and they ended up building a suburban-style strip center, and none of the other development even happened.”

Judge Damon Keith ruled in 1971 that the city had discriminated against residents in those neighborhoods. He ordered restitution, but the city didn’t have the money or the will to deliver. So the case dragged on. And on.

Then, around 1999 the city decided to get serious about resolving the suit. Officials started figuring out where they could find pots of money, and got to work getting plaintiffs into homes.

There have been several phases of restitution as the city cobbled together state and federal programs. For this latest, and Friedmann says, final round, the homes are mostly new construction built to fit in with Hamtramck’s existing housing stock.

“They’re old-fashioned looking on the outside, but the insides are very up-to-date," he said. "They all have high-efficiency furnaces or geothermal heat, wide open floor plans, center islands in the kitchen, all granite counter tops.”

Plaintiffs who get houses in this phase will get special loans through the state. The homeowners will pay taxes, insurance and utilities. But they won't have a house note. And if they stay in their homes for 15 years, they’ll own them free and clear.

That’s great news to Tisha Friday. She and her daughter will move into their home here in the coming days. They’ll each have their own bedroom upstairs. And there’s a third bedroom. It will be a nursery for Friday’s granddaughter, due to be born in mid-March.

“She’ll eventually have something to call her own," she said. "A lot of times we can’t, you know, come up with our own.”

Friday’s grandmother didn’t live long enough to see her granddaughter become a homeowner. And that’s the bittersweet part for a lot of those finally getting homes. They’re the children and grandchildren of the people the city displaced.

But Friday says Hamtramck is home. And her family tree continues to grow here.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.
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