Is Detroit councilwoman's home part of city's blight problem?

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The city of Detroit is fighting blight with all its might. But what happens when a home with peeling paint, boarded windows, and a broken porch - all of which violate city code - belongs to a city council member?

Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez's home is nestled in one of the nicest neighborhoods in the Sixth Council District. It's far from one of the nicest homes. FOX 2 first noticed the problem five months ago when trying to track down the councilwoman to talk about a different story.

We couldn't believe the shape it was in.

"Well, you know, my parents sacrificed so we could go to college and they didn't have enough to invest in repairing the home - and that's a completely separate issue outside of this and I think it's completely inappropriate," Castaneda-Lopez said in April.

The home is right across the street from Clark Park - an oasis in Southwest Detroit for families and children. We heard her home was about to become an election issue, so we asked for a meeting to talk about it.

"There's nothing that we have heard in terms of the condition of the house. It's over 100 years old, for sure, so like most homes in the city of Detroit, needs repairs."

City records show in 2011, Castaneda-Lopez's family was ordered to repair or replace defective gutters, remove peeling paint and repair the defective front porch. That was six years ago. She said the Detroit Building, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) don’t have anything on file in relation to her house.

"To our knowledge we haven't received any blight violations ... there's no record from 2011," Castaneda-Lopez said. "There's nothing else that was ever sent to our house or that BSEED has on file for our property.

Our reporting found that Castaneda-Lopez’s family was notified in 2011 that the home a zoning clearance check shows in 2012 the home needed to repair to gutters, downspouts, peeling paint, and the porch. That was just a year later.

When we showed Castaneda-Lopez a copy of the document, the councilwoman said she was unaware of any notice sent to her home.

"I would encourage you to check the validity of that document because I just spoke to BSEED this morning. So they didn't give me anything related to this. I just talked to them this morning, I'm sure they would have given me something if there was something on file, but they have nothing on file for 2011 or 2012," Castaneda-Lopez said.

Castaneda-Lopez's staff has been known for calling BSEED to complain about other people's blighted homes.

The councilwoman says most of her money pays off student loans - she has a masters degree in social work from the University of Michigan. She also says she supports her family, including relatives who live with her.

"We do as much as we can and we're going to keep on doing what we can," she said.

When pressed again, she doubled down and said she was just like many other Detroiters and lives on limited income. Her income is $75,000 a year, she gets a free car, and the city provides gas and is self-insured, so she does not have to pay the exorbitant insurance rates that plague other Detroiters.

"So again, I am a first-generation college student, have much student debt, I am the sole provider for my family, and that's what we stay focused on," Castaneda-Lopez said. "(I'm) not asking for special treatment, we are in compliance with city code."

Her neighbors like her -- but not enough to pretend her home isn't a problem.

"A lot of neighbors are complaining that they don't like it like that," Maria Reyes said.
Another neighbor, Jamie Cazares, likes the job she's doing on city council, just not the condition of the house.

"You never know when that porch might fall off and somebody could get hurt," neighbor Eliazar Salinas said.

Census figures show that Castaneda-Lopez makes far more than many of her neighbors, who have somehow managed to maintain their properties.

"We do as much as we can," Castaneda-Lopez said. "I've answered your question multiple times, we're in compliance with city code, we do as much as we can.”

When pressed why her neighbors, whose median income is $27,000, were able to keep up their homes, she reiterated she was in compliance.

"You can follow up with BSEED as well to get the facts straight," she said.

So we did. BSEED provided a correction order from 2012 showing that her family had been told the previous year to fix the gutter, peeling paint, and the porch.

The day after we spoke with her, Castaneda-Lopez also contacted the city, and asked for an inspection. This time, an inspector found even more problems including broken windows, overgrown branches, and excessive debris. In other words, problems that were obvious to everyone but the councilwoman.

After obtaining records we reached out to the councilwoman again. She did not return any messages.