In Grand Rapids, Your Home is Not Always Your Castle

Homeowner fights city over private property rights

Nancy Wilson's home
Nancy Wilson's home in Grand Rapids.

Most homeowners regard their home as their castle and private domain. But some Grand Rapids residents with homes in historic districts may have cause to wonder, given the experience of Nancy Wilson, who says the city has put her in a debtor's prison.

First, officials slapped Wilson with a fine for not getting her three-story house painted in time. Then, after the work was partially completed, regulators turned around and charged her with a misdemeanor.

“I don’t think it is the job of the neighborhood code compliance people to cause harm for anyone who lives in the city. They are supposed to be serving us and the city commission backs away and lets them do what they want and every action they took against me was counterproductive to getting the house painted,” said Wilson.

Since moving into her home in the city’s Heritage Hill neighborhood in 2006, Wilson has sunk time, money and sweat into refurbishing the property. Yet the city's code compliance department can’t seem to leave her alone. The ordeal began with citations for brush in her yard, which she had gathered while cleaning up soon after moving in. The city said it would come on her property and remove the piles and bill her $100.

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Wilson complained about the warnings and years later, she managed to get a meeting with city leaders to discuss her concerns. She thought the meeting was productive but in 2013 she received notice that she needed to paint the three-story, century-old home in a matter of months and install a railing on a half-roof she never used. Wilson removed the rail years earlier when it began rotting. She planned to replace it eventually but was spending her time and money on other high-priority repairs.

Wilson wanted to wait a year to fix the rail and paint the house because she developed health problems and was short on cash. The city demanded that she pay a fee to appeal the citations. Instead, Wilson said she hand-delivered a letter to the code compliance department explaining her situation. The response came months later — in the form of fines.

Wilson is a do-it-yourselfer who can’t afford to hire professional contractors she says would have charged up to $40,000. Instead, she has received help from friends to get the work done. Eventually Wilson and her neighbor, Eric Baxter, began the massive paint job.

By then the city was demanding that she pay fines that topped $2,000. When she didn’t pay, the city put a lien on her house. After she painted the first two stories, the city took more action, this time charging her with a misdemeanor for having three or more code violations.

Wilson shared her story in a video produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy to alert others about the extent of local ordinances and how they can threaten private property. She is not alone in receiving fines and charges. Grand Rapids collects at least $2 million a year in maintenance fines from property owners.

“The state of Michigan has given very broad powers to local governments to protect the health, safety, and well-being of the citizens. But too many of these local code laws have slipped into the territory of aesthetics or appearances,” said Derk Wilcox, senior attorney with the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation.

“The bottom line in cases like these is the city is using this as a source of revenue, and pretty much driving out anyone who doesn't have the discretionary income to make these aesthetic changes quickly and at great expense,” added Wilcox.

The city declined to discuss Wilson's complaints or its ordinances. A judge did dismiss the criminal charge against Wilson but she still had to pay the fines. She likens her situation to being in a debtor’s prison and worries that someday she may have to move.

Complaints about local historic district powers are not new, and legislation has been introduced to address them. House Bill 5232 sponsored by Republican Rep. Chris Afendoulis, and Senate Bill 720 sponsored by Republican Sen. Peter MacGregor, would change current law to require popular elections to create historic districts and implement them with 10-year sunsets.

A video report on Nancy Wilson's home:


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