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Seemed Like an Investor

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Friday, August 1, 2014

INTRO: City officials estimate Detroit now has 78,000 abandoned properties. The Wayne County auction allows some of them to be bought and fixed up. Many others get bought and recirculated. Paper changes hands. A few people might make money while the house and the neighborhood stays the same. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports on a house where hopes rose and hopes fell.

Sam Szabla is an interior designer who travels around the world for business and pleasure. He bought 15 properties in the Wayne County auction. That was October. He seemed sent by God.

“Actually, I make my money in Miami. But I’m investing my money in Detroit.”

Szabla paid $5,000 for the house at 159 Taylor Street. It’s one block west of Woodward, just south of the grand homes of Boston-Edison district. He visited the house in December.

“I see that the bricks look to be in great shape and somebody took a lot of time to sand all the wood on the outside of the house. God bless ‘em.”

Szabla was born in Detroit. At age 7, his grandmother took him to Cleveland where he grew up. He moved to Hawaii where he started home furnishing stores.

“And in the front all the wood that’s around here someone has sanded down to the wood. So somebody was starting to work on it. Probably ran out of money. Couldn’t finish it and left.”

Marilyn Williams has lived down the street for 50 years. Trouble began a year and a half ago. One renter wanted to punish another renter in a fight.

“You know they put some money in this house. But it caught fire. And I don’t know how bad the fire is. ”

“Well we’re going to go in and find out.”

Szabla had bought the house two months before. December was the first time he went in.

“If we go around destroying everything that we don’t like there won’t be nothing left of the city. This is the reality. One by one they have to get fixed. Especially the ones that have so much history.”

The house has 5 bedrooms and three baths. Scrappers took the furnace, pipes and wires. Szabla walked up to the third floor where clothes and broken furniture lay. Rainstorms have made for moldy plaster and rotting wood.

“There’s like holes in the roof. Charred wood. Burnt insulation.”

Insurance companies estimate replacing a house on this block is $450,000. Sam Szabla thinks it’s double that.

“That’s what it would cost to build this house today. So when we talk about destroying things. People don’t get what they’re destroying. They’re destroying great architecture that you’re never going to replace because no one is going to spend $1 million to build this house again.”

Marilyn Williams was impressed that day with Sam Szabla.

“Just talking to him he sounds like he is sincere.”

On July 14 of this year, the Detroit City Council discussed this and many other houses. The council wants to demolish them. Sam Szabla has paid to have the lawn mowed and some boards put over the broken windows. Back in December he refused to think of himself as a speculator trying to make buck.

“This is not a flipping game. This is a holding game. You do what you do. You give back to the community. You make sure that the exterior of your house looks like every other house. And when the time is right you worry about the inside. You get it secure, safe, waterproof, water tight.”

Now eight months after Sam Szabla said that, he has done none of it. He wrote this email saying the house was bought by investors from New York willing to create a Bed n Breakfast place. Sam was going to put in half the money needed. But the investors changed their mind after they had quote looked to the city’s process and found it totally dis functional and loads of red tape. Neither Sam nor the investors paid the taxes. They’re willing to sell it now for the $5,000 they paid for it. Meanwhile, they’ve listed it with a realtor for $35,000. Once again, bright hopes for a troubled house… dashed.

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Amongst the personal belongings left behind by tenants who had an argument and set the house on fire.

Amongst the personal belongings left behind by tenants who had an argument and set the house on fire.

Szabla says he and the New York investors were going to split the cost of turning it into a bed n breakfast place.

Szabla says he and the New York investors were going to split the cost of turning it into a bed n breakfast place.

Szabla has boarded up doors and windows a couple times since taking control of it.

Szabla has boarded up doors and windows a couple times since taking control of it.

Sam Szabla in the basement of 159 Taylor, Detroit. He toured the house for the first time in December after buying it in the auction for about $5,000 in October. Steel I beams are considered high-end for  home construction even today.

Sam Szabla in the basement of 159 Taylor, Detroit. He toured the house for the first time in December after buying it in the auction for about $5,000 in October. Steel I beams are considered high-end for home construction even today.

The city council ordered anyone interested in keeping this property to appear July 14 at 10 a.m. That was two weeks ago.

The city council ordered anyone interested in keeping this property to appear July 14 at 10 a.m. That was two weeks ago.

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