KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Dressed in a neon T-shirt to promote his new home renovation series, Jeremy Cole sawed off a piece of crown molding to put up in a home in Kalamazoo’s Vine Neighborhood. The star of the show “Gritty to Pretty,” Cole made headlines over the past year and has been praised for revitalizing Kalamazoo one dilapidated home at a time.
Cole purchased a row of three vacant homes on West Dutton Street in 2017, he said. Still more gritty than pretty, two of the homes remain largely untouched; and the star of the cable TV show has yet to pay property taxes on the three homes. A public records search by Newschannel 3 uncovered, as of Feb. 21, 2019, that Cole owed $26,499 in unpaid property taxes, interest and late fees to Kalamazoo County.
Cole owns four properties on Kalamazoo County’s foreclosure list with close to $17,000 owed on 2016-17 property taxes. He has until April 1, 2019, to pay; otherwise the three homes and a vacant lot will be foreclosed on.
“I'm here to be positive,” Cole said. “Look at what we are doing in Kalamazoo. Look at this dump that could have been demolished. This whole block could just be a vacant lot, and now it's not.”
Cole's company, Statewide Rentals LLC, owes about $9,500 on seven properties on the county's delinquent tax list, according to public records. If left unpaid, those would be foreclosed on in March 2020.
“Oh, you got the total tax bill, which I could pay a check today. The reason I haven't is because I told the county treasurer, Mary, I'll pay my tax bills in full if you stop demolishing houses,” Cole said.
Kalamazoo County Treasurer Mary Balkema said hundreds of blighted homes have been demolished, but added tax-foreclosed homes that can be sold are saved.
“I think he's trying to tell one story, but this tells a very different story,” Balkema said.
Dated March 2017, other Kalamazoo homeowners who are behind on property tax bills received a letter, which Cole told Newschannel 3 he sent out. The letter said it’s from the Kalamazoo County Land Union, which is similar in name to the Kalamazoo County Land Bank, which works closely with Kalamazoo County to manage and rehab tax-foreclosed homes.
“CASH OFFER!!! This offer is time sensitive!!!,” the letter read. “Don’t let the county take your home for $0!!!”
Cole’s cell phone number is listed on the letter, along with an email address and website to an organization that, county officials said, does not exist. The county treasurer said it appeared to be an attempt to scare people on the delinquent tax list into selling their homes.
“We had to send a letter to our taxpayers because we don’t want anyone to fall prey to a predatory scam,” Balkema said. She added the county has $40,000 in private money from the Foundation for Excellence to try to help families stay in their homes and out of foreclosure.
Cole told Newschannel 3 he stopped circulating the letter and using the Kalamazoo County Land Union name at the request of the treasurer’s office.
State law prohibits Cole and anyone else on the delinquent tax list from buying a home at public auction or from the Kalamazoo County Land Bank.
“I take junk like this and we make it the best on the block,” Cole said.
He estimated he’s spent at least a couple million dollars buying and renovating dilapidated homes in Kalamazoo.
His other company, Neighborhood Builders LLC, makes money on the buy side and sells the flipped homes below market value, Cole said.
“It’s a win for me, it’s a win for the neighbors and it’s a win for the buyer,” he added. Cole argued an investment in a run down or vacant home does more good for the community than paying property taxes on time.
“Let's say I didn't buy that house and it got demolished; now there is a vacant lot, the next-door neighbor's property value goes down,” Cole said.
He also argued the homes he flips helps provide more affordable housing and improve the local economy. “They’re buying furniture, they’re employing a lawn guy. That’s a bigger benefit than me forking over $2,000 on this house, this year, in my perspective,” Cole said.
Property tax dollars help improve neighborhoods and provide services communities need, Balkema said, “that allows local government to operate, to plow streets, invest in infrastructure and lighting.”
The county treasurer also said as long as Cole pays before his properties are foreclosed on, she’s happy to collect the 18 percent interest and late fees.
Balkema said, “It is expensive to be delinquent; it is not a crime, however.”
The county charges 12 percent interest the first year a property is on the tax delinquent list, 18 percent on year two and three, which is also when the property goes on the foreclosure list.
“Who loses in the late payments? The county gets an extra fee, the city still gets their funds that they were due, who loses?” Cole said. “The community wins because the money that he would have paid bought more properties that were saved.”
Cole said none of his properties will be foreclosed on this year.
Balkema said the county foreclosed on one of Cole’s properties in the past few years, a vacant lot. County and city officials told Newschannel 3 it is difficult to identify all of the properties Cole owns or has owned because he’s listed properties under different names.
Episode two of “Gritty to Pretty” is scheduled to air on the DIY network Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019.