DEARBORN HEIGHTS, Mich. (FOX 2) - Block after block of run down houses. How did I end up here? In Detroit with a feeling of doom that
these neighborhoods will never come back.
This was supposed to be a story about a guy and some people he thought were shaking him down. But
I may have stumbled upon a much bigger problem - something called ‘bulk portfolio’ real estate. And it's got everything to do with riches and ruin.
This is Kevin – and his house. This is Kevin's house for sale. But the problem is, Kevin's not selling his house.
"It didn't make sense,” he said.
Kevin's got a warranty deed to the house. That means he owns it free and clear, right? Kevin or someone in his family has lived in the home since 2011.
So imagine Kevin's surprise when a few months ago, strangers started showing up looking
in the windows, taking pictures of the house.
When he confronted them, they told him the house was for sale.
"We went to Google,” he said. “We looked it up. We found out it was listed by Wendy Briggs."
Who's Wendy Briggs? Well, she's a real estate broker and she's also a bulk portfolio home buyer.
What's that mean? It's like going to one of those warehouse stores and buying a bunch of paper towels and they're cheaper because you're buying in bulk. Except she's buying houses.
How many homes does she have? According to this map I got from the University of Michigan
Dearborn, a ton.
So how did Kevin's Dearborn Heights house end up in Wendy Briggs’ Detroit portfolio? He's never even heard of her. So he called her up.
"Wendy I said, what needs to be done to make this go away? How do we fix this?” Kevin said. “She says somebody's got to give Come Back Home Ministries $15,000."
Who's Come Back Home Ministries? They are another group involved in bulk portfolio home buying.
Kevin's never heard of them either. Kevin's praying for help. So he calls the Problem Solvers.
We do some digging and discover yes indeed, Kevin has the warranty deed to his house. But there
are other deeds to his house floating around out there.
Quitclaims deeds - which are basically quickie deeds that make it easy to move a house from one party to another.
It turns out Wendy got the house quitclaim deeded to her company Trading Places in a bulk home
portfolio transaction along with more than 100 other homes in 2013.
“She buys it for $3,000 and never even shows up,” Kevin said. “She takes it and turns around and quitclaim deeds it to Come Back Home Ministries for a dollar. And then Come Back Home Ministry takes it and sells it for $8,500 to this other guy.”
The other guy? Franz John Ivezaj, and you guessed it - he's another bulk portfolio home dude.
Franz then quitclaimed the house for a dollar back to Come Back Home Ministries. What the heck is
I am going to talk to Franz.
“Listen my friend, I bought a house and they refunded me,” he said.
Wendy: “I bit off more than I could chew.”
The pastor from Come Back Home Ministries: “It’s no scheme.”
And the guy who somehow started this whole mess in a minute.
But first, this is Dr. Joshua Akers from the University of Michigan Dearborn. He's behind a research project called Urban Praxis. They "out" bulk property owners. He thinks portfolio buying is contributing to the decay of neighborhoods.
Houses that were once owned by families are now commodities. They're not homes. They are things. Things sold in bulk.
Here's how a bulk portfolio business person works.
"I get a bunch of investors together,” Akers said. “I have a portfolio of 150 properties. But the condition of those properties don't really matter. What I'm going to sell to you as an investor is you're going to
get 20 percent in returns. So the emphasis is on me to find a way how to produce those returns."
The buyers take a gamble that some of the properties are salvageable. Some of them aren't but that
doesn't matter, they're dealing in bulk.
So who are these bulk portfolio home traders? Top notch real estate whizzes? Upstanding citizens
looking to better the neighborhoods? Let's examine the bulk portfolio people involved with Kevin's
First off, there's Douglass Diggs. He was appointed as a receiver by the court to clean up a mess
involving homes bought in a giant scheme called the Paramount Case involving the Detroit Police and
Fire Pension Fund.
The problem is, Kevin's house doesn't appear to be a part of that case. But there's Diggs’ signature
quitclaiming Kevin's house to Wendy's company.
I asked Douglass Diggs if he was to blame for Kevin's house to get plucked out of nowhere and into a bulk sale he oversaw.
Rob Wolchek: “Whose fault is it? Is it your fault?"
Douglass Diggs said, "Yeah, I'm sorry. I don't take responsibility for it. It was part of a portfolio."
A portfolio with a whole bunch of houses. Here's what the spokesperson for the pension fund has to say about that:
“Whether this was an error or willful misconduct to convey a title one did not own, is something that the authorities may wish to review."
Diggs told me he'd have his attorney call. We didn't get the call. And unfortunately Mr. Diggs died
shortly after we interviewed him.
Next on the mysterious quitclaim chain is realtor Wendy Briggs.
"I bought many homes from the 3rd Circuit Court appointed Douglas Diggs."
"I sold several of those homes to Come Back Home Ministries,” said Briggs. “A church."
Wendy admitted she had never been to the church, but she quit claimed the house to the reverend - a convicted felon by the name of Sylvester "Seal" Murray.
Wolchek: "Why did you give it to Sylvester Murray and Come Back Home Ministries for a dollar?"
"He wanted 32 of the homes - no he paid me," she said.
Wolchek: "So how much did he buy it for?"
"Six thousand,” she said.
Let's see what the reverend has to say.
Wolchek: "Tell me about the ministry. Is this a ministry or is this just a money making scheme?”
"No, don't talk about a scheme,” Murray said. This is for real."
Yeah, it's real, real shady. Murray the minister has a past that's sinister. He was a big shot in a heroin ring called Young Boys Inc. If anyone's soul needs saving, it's Sylvester Murray's.
And if anyone needs some non-taxable money, it's Sylvester Murray. According to his 2011 bankruptcy he owes the IRS $14 million.
"I'm spending money, I'm not making money," he said.
Wolchek: “Because you filed for bankruptcy and you've got $14 million …”
"That's personal with me,” Sylvester Murray said. “That's got nothing to do with Come Back Home Ministries."
I hate to doubt a man of the cloth, but I can't even find this place. They're not on the directory in the office they claim to rent. There's no one at either of their addresses.
I caught the Come Back Home minister coming back out of the Mapleview liquor store in West Bloomfield. So where's the congregation meet, rev?
“The church is on 15167 James Couzens. That's where the church is at, off Puritan," he said.
Wolchek: "You have a church?"
Nice try. That address is this vacant lot.
Next I meet up with Franz Ivejah. A warning - this guy's kind of camera shy. It might be because he's a registered sex offender.
Wolchek: "I need to know about this quitclaim deed that you did with a house and Come Back Home Ministries. You bought this house for $8,000 and then you quitclaimed it back to Come Back Home Ministries. This guy is having a lot of problems with his house. Can you fill me in?"
"I bought a house and it was not good. It was a messed up title and that was it,” he said.
So this guy at least checked the title on the house and realized it belonged to Kevin years ago.
So why is Wendy Briggs listing Kevin's house now? She blames it on Sylvester Murray and Come Back Home Ministries.
Wolchek: “So did Murray contact you earlier this year and say 'Hey sell this house on Monroe?"
"Yes he did," she said.
But he acts like this is news to him.
Wolchek: "Now she put this house up for sale, this Briggs did."
Murray: "When was this?"
Wolchek: "Like this year."
Murray: "Oh, okay."
For Wendy Briggs and Sylvester Murray, Kevin's house wasn’t his home it was just another thing. A thing to be traded, a thing they wanted to get Kevin to pay $15,000 to them for.
Wendy's now taken the house off her website. Nobody's contacted Kevin in months. Maybe they realized this "thing" wasn't going to make them money.
Which leads us back to Professor Akers and why he thinks bulk portfolio sales are so destructive. Remember, many of the houses in Detroit were purchased in bulk. And he says when the buyers can't make money off of them, they bail.
"When you can't convince someone to take these homes anymore what do they do? They walk away,” Akers said. “It goes to tax foreclosure auction and it goes all the way through and the goes to the Land Bank and the public is on the hook for paying the bill."
Wolchek: "And ultimately it destroys the city and the neighborhoods."
"Yeah,” he said. “Piece by piece."
Kevin says he has spoken to investigators from the Wayne County Deed Fraud Task Force. He also says he has reported Wendy Briggs to the state board of realtors.
She said over the phone, “This has been a complete nightmare.” She says she has done nothing wrong, and everything legally. She said she is cooperating with investigators and no longer has contact with Come Back Home Ministries.
The ministry’s reverend, Sylvester Murray, never returned my call.