Co-published with BridgeDetroit.
In May, a representative for Crown Enterprises, a real estate firm owned by the Moroun family, knocked on Savannah Lewis’ door and offered her $90,000 to move out of the home she has lived in for six decades.
The 92-year-old said she was given three days’ notice to decide and 30 days to move out.
Since then, neighbors said, the company has continued its door-to-door visits in the Cadillac Heights neighborhood to present similar buyouts to Lewis’ neighbors. On either side of Lewis and across the street, neighbors said they have taken deals with the company. Soon, Lewis will be the last one left.
Lewis said she’s built a beautiful home and community for herself and was expecting to live there until she died. But she now argues she is being pushed out by the billionaire owners of the Ambassador Bridge, whose empire is buying up large swaths of land in Cadillac Heights and pressuring residents to move. Crown Enterprises said that it has made “unsolicited offers” to residents with “proposed timelines” in an attempt to buy parcels to prevent trespassing and reduce blight. But beyond the construction of a concrete facility, there aren’t immediate plans for the other plots.
Lewis recounted to BridgeDetroit how she had told the Crown Enterprise representative ‘no,’ to the offer and said that he became short, telling her he didn’t care if she didn’t want to move, and they would just build around her. She said he told her that they were doing her a favor, offering an above-market rate price for her home.
“The nerve of him,” added Lewis’ daughter, Victoria Lewis Davis. “You can’t just go to this neighborhood and do this,” she said. “She doesn’t want to move. It’s just really unfair.”
At Lewis’ age, she and her daughter said they don’t feel it’s safe for her to stay in the neighborhood any longer with neighbors being bought out by the Morouns. Lewis plans to move out in the spring to live with her daughter on the west side.
“I’ve been here a long time. All my life is in here,” Lewis said. “I’m too old to be moving.”
The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center said the issue was brought to the firm’s attention and its lawyers plan to build a case against the Moroun family for dismantling the Cadillac Heights neighborhood.
Andrew Bashi, a staff attorney for the law center, said he received a call in August 2021 from a resident concerned about the new concrete facility being built and the impact it would have on air quality in the neighborhood.
Bashi said he went out to investigate and realized the “whole area is under assault” by Crown Enterprises, which, he argues, has actively intimidated residents to get them to leave.
Bashi discovered the concrete facility was on property owned by the Morouns, a family at the center of long standing controversy including purchasing numerous properties in southwest Detroit and then allowing them to fall into disrepair, the Ambassador Bridge war, and other backdoor attempts to buy land up in Detroit.
Bashi said much of the surrounding land near the facility is now owned by the Crown Enterprises. To date, the Morouns own 135 of 162 parcels stretching from the east side of Mitchell to the west side of Moran, according to the law center’s analysis.
“The community has been blindsided,” Bashi said. ”The Moroun family/Crown Enterprises are going door to door with offers telling people ‘you have three days to accept, and if you don’t we’re going to just build around you.’”
Esther Jentzen, a representative for Crown, confirmed in a Tuesday email that the company is making efforts to acquire land, but said it’s up to homeowners whether they want to take the deals.
“We have made unsolicited offers to residents of occupied houses. When making these offers, it is customary in real estate to include parameters around the agreement, including proposed timelines,” she wrote. “However, residents do not have to agree or respond to our offers and several have renegotiated the terms to adjust the move-out time, value, etc. Crown does not have an interest in forcing residents to sell who are not interested.”
John Roach, a spokesman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, said the administration has “not received any harassment complaints,” but said anyone who feels that they may have been, should reach out to Ray Solomon with the mayor’s Department of Neighborhoods.
Jentzen noted that Crown has owned property in Cadillac Heights since the 1960s.
“Crown owns the vast majority of the “6 Mile Triangle” site, bounded by Moran, Jerome, Joseph Campau, E. McNichols, and has been taking steps to acquire the remaining parcels as they become available,” she said. “The goal is to secure these properties against trespassing and dumping. We are in the process of demolishing all blighted structures within the site and plan to continue to clean up the property, making the neighborhood safer and more secure.”
There are no immediate plans, Jentzen said, for development on the properties besides the concrete plant, which she said was built to provide materials for local infrastructure projects.
But some residents argue that the Morouns – known for acquiring large swaths of land in the city and being fined for code and blight violations – have been contributing to blight in Cadillac Heights. Lewis said she recently learned that several of the overgrown plots she had been mowing for years belonged to the Morouns.
“My mother should be compensated in some kind of way (for taking care of that land) if she’s got to uproot,” Lewis Davis said.
Historically, the Morouns have bought or secured many pieces of land and have let some of them fall into disrepair. In one case, the company fenced off community-stewarded land it received as part of the FCA/Stellantis land swap with barbed wire in southwest Detroit.
Crown Enterprise – owned parcels showing in red. The company owns 427 land parcels across the city, concentrated on the east side and in southwest Detroit according to parcel data accessed via the City of Detroit Open Data Portal 9/21/2022. Hover over parcels to see more information on each parcel.
n 2018, the company struck a $90 million deal with Ford Motor Co. for the sale of the Michigan Central Depot after the deteriorating building sat vacant for decades. The family sold the City of Detroit acres of land in recent years for the east side expansion of a Chrysler plant, and the Morouns acquired acres of prime riverfront land in exchange for the rejuvenation of Riverside Park in a controversial land swap with Detroit.
The Morouns have waged a lengthy battle over the construction of a twin span of the Ambassador Bridge and have pushed back on the Gordie Howe International Bridge.
“There are definitely some concerning practices with the level of pressure they’re putting on residents – this brings up a lot of questions about the political influence of speculators like the Morouns,” Bashi said.
A quarter of the Crown Enterprises properties in Cadillac Heights were obtained through a controversial land swap with the city. In 2019, Fiat Chrysler, now Stellantis, made plans to expand its east side automotive plant. To do so, the automaker needed 215 acres. The city then facilitated a series of land swaps, with the Morouns receiving $43.5 million and 261 parcels, including some in Cadillac Heights.
In 2019, Councilmember Scott Benson, who represents District 3, which covers Cadillac Heights, voted in favor of the FCA land swap. Lewis told BridgeDetroit that when she went to Benson for help, she was only able to reach a representative from his office.
“It didn’t do any good,” Lewis Davis said.
Benson told BridgeDetroit on Wednesday that his office wasn’t aware of Lewis’ contact attempts, and has not received any complaints from residents.
“If people are intimidating people to try to sell property that’s problematic,” said Benson, adding his office has been closely following Crown’s work “to make sure that our residents are protected.”
Benson said one challenge for the neighborhood is that decades ago it was zoned as heavily industrial, yet it’s located right next to a residential area. The councilman said that his office would be looking into any reports of intimidation.
On one of the Moroun-owned plots, the concrete facility, a Moroun subsidiary Hercules Materials Holdings LLC, is painted down the side in red letters reading “Kronos.” The plant is the company’s fifth and began operating earlier this month.
The cement industry is the third-largest industrial polluter in the country, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, emitting large quantities of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide. Cement plants are a “significant source” of harmful-to-human-health pollutants associated with damage to lungs, respiratory issues, cardiovascular disease, and visual impairment. Emissions from concrete facilities can travel up to two miles meaning it could reach the nearby neighborhoods of Conant Gardens, Davison, and Greenfield Park.
The concrete facility didn’t require a permit to be built, Bashi said, because the area is already zoned for industrial use.
The law center, he added, is building a case against the company, but he declined to give specific details. It also is working with a real estate company to offer services to affected residents in the community, free of charge.
“They basically haven’t had any voice in the future,” he said.
‘Everything is gone’
Lewis’ neighbor, Eric Sanders, has lived in the neighborhood since 1997 and said he also has contributed to the community, cutting empty lots, including ones owned by the Morouns.
But when the company approached him about buying his properties, one directly next to Lewis, and one across from her, for a total of $175,000, he said, he took the deal.
“You do have mixed emotions,” he said. “Where’s our City Council? They sure enough broke our necks to get our votes. They did all this publicity and stuff.”
The neighborhood is close, with everyone looking out for each other, Sanders said, and it’s a community he cares about deeply. But with the price Crown offered and his own personal situation, he felt the deal was for the best. Sanders said he didn’t feel pressured or intimidated into moving and was able to negotiate more time to move out. He expects to leave sometime in October.
Bashi said for Black communities in Detroit, the pathway to building wealth is hard to come by.
“People buy homes, being told that this is part of the American dream. It’s the pathway to building wealth, it’s a pathway out of poverty. And that’s true for a lot of people. It’s not true for Black communities in Detroit,” he said. “You don’t know whether they’re gonna decide to change zoning on you, they’re gonna make some ridiculous deal to swap over all the land around you to someone as unscrupulous as the Morouns and if they do that, you basically own a property that may not be worth anything.”
When Lewis moved into her home in 1962 it was a modest single-story. In the years since, she’s turned it into a 2-story, complete with a garage, paved backyard, and an enclosed front porch. Over the decades, she said, she has spent countless hours beautifying the neighborhood by maintaining the lawns of blighted properties and picking up trash, heading the neighborhood block club association, and even painting the curb.
“My mother has cut these lots for years, taking her pension money and trying to keep it clean around here,” Lewis Davis said, “when all along the Moroun family owned all this territory, and they wouldn’t even do anything about it.”
Awards for her service to the community decorate the walls of her living room, including a1993 honor from the office of the city’s first African American mayor, Coleman A. Young; a 1996 award from the Michael Lee Searcy Community and Development Center; and another from former Detroit mayor Dennis W. Archer.
Lewis said she had moved near Palmer Park in the 1960s after several instances where she was in a house, fixed it up, and was forced to move for one reason or another. After the fifth time, she said she figured moving out as far as Palmer Park would spare her from relocating again.
“I can’t leave her here,” Lewis Davis said of her mother. “There’s nothing behind you, nothing in front of you. Everything is gone, and she’s hurt.”