Vacant homes create battle between Muskegon Heights and county

12:37 AM, Jul 16, 2013   |    comments
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A squatter climbs through a window to get into the Muskegon Heights vacant house he's living in

MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WZZM) -- The city of Muskegon Heights and Muskegon County are at odds over who should maintain 200 foreclosed homes before they go to auction.

The homes are owned by the county, but under a recent lawsuit settlement it is up to the city to maintain them.

With no money to address the problem, the city is dealing with arson and squatters.

Muskegon County Treasurer Tony Moulatsiotis says he feels the city's pain, but he says it's really a problem that needs help from the state or federal government.

WZZM 13 News spoke with a Muskegon Heights resident about the vacant homes in his neighborhood.

"That yellow house on the corner, I've witnessed some transactions, drug transactions," says William Baker.

The house Baker is referring to on Jefferson Street is one of 200 homes in Muskegon Heights without a home owner. It's foreclosed and county-owned -- and for two months, it has been 24-year-old Josh Tarbani's home, though Tarbani does not have a key to get in the front door.

Tarbani is a squatter.

"There was trash this high on the ground," he says.

He says he lost a good job and his house in North Muskegon. Now, he and two others are living in the yellow house on North Jefferson Street.

"Do I want to sleep outside on the ground, or do I want to stay?" asks Tarbani.

Muskegon Heights city buildings inspector and Fire Chief Chris Dean would rather Josh leave, but says the city doesn't have the money to board that house or the other four houses on the block up.

"If we take a total of $500 of property with 200 properties, I think that's $100,000," says Dean.

It's money the chief says the city would be spending on someone else's property with no way to recoup.

"The city is 3.8 square miles -- that's approximately 50 properties per square mile that the county has that they're not maintaining," Dean says.

The chief says the county receives revenue for the properties and profits at auction, But Muskegon County treasurer Tony Moulatsiotis says the county borrows $12 million a year to pay the property taxes people have not paid.

"We have to get money back, only way to get the money is by having the auctions and selling the properties," he says.

Moulatsiotis asked for a $232,000 grant to tear down 36 houses blighted for demolition in Muskegon Heights, but it was rejected.

Dean fears with no solution, the city will spend more resources on abandoned houses.

"Vacant houses being set on fire," he says. "Gives the criminals a place to hide."

As well as the squatters, and that concerns Baker.

"Someone might get raped, hurt, killed, or die of a drug overdose," says Baker.

"We don't know what the final solution is to fix the problem and we need to find that," says Moulatsiotis.

In the meantime, Tarbani will continue to call the yellow house on the corner his home.

"The way I'm looking at it, I'm not hurting no one," says Tarbani.

"The city could end up in financial trouble again, just trying to take care of the county properties," says Dean.

We checked with Kent County, and the treasurer told us the county does pay for the upkeep of foreclosed lots and helps cities with boarding them up.  However, Moulatsiotis says Kent County received a federal grant to help cover the costs.

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