Mapping out how Detroit is tackling a mountain of blight

Media Reports News

Mapping out how Detroit is tackling a mountain of blight

March 24, 2015 [Mike Wilkinson, Bridge Magazine]

No one who has driven through Detroit is surprised by what confronts city residents: More than 84,600 properties are blighted by one estimate, a staggering number that means more than one in five parcels citywide is tainted by a dilapidated structure.

With decay running across almost every neighborhood, perhaps the most daunting task was deciding where to start. Thus this dilemma: Detroit could spend tens of millions of dollars across every neighborhood and make no visible dent in many places.

See which Detroit neighborhoods get blight relief first in this interactive map

So city leaders have made hard choices since Mike Duggan became mayor in January of last year, picking a handful of targeted areas in which to spend the first wave of $50 million in federal money. This includes, for instance, parts of the west side but not all of Brightmoor, an area that’s been rocked by foreclosure and abandonment. It also includes East English Village and Jefferson-Chalmers on the east side, but not all of the area in between, much of it a pockmarked landscape of urban prairie.

In the past eight months, more than 3,700 structures have been demolished or are in the process of getting knocked down, according to the city. Duggan spokesman John Roach said that before the mayor took office the city was demolishing 50 structures a week. Roach said the goal is 200 a week (about double the city’s current pace), which would take care of 10,000 structures a year. Even at that hoped-for rate, it could take up to 10 years to clear all properties currently marring the city.

Detroit is burning through $100 million in federal funding for demolitions, but it needs hundreds of millions more. The Detroit Blight Task Force, which oversaw the mapping of the entire city to get a handle on the blight problem, estimated the total bill could hit $850 million.

When he was Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr initially outlined a plan to take some of money Detroit would save through bankruptcy and spend $520 million on blight removal over the next decade. But Roach, the city spokesman, and city Chief Financial Officer John Hill are less specific.

If the city cannot find additional savings or new revenues, there is no additional city money slated for blight removal, Duggan warned told local leaders in February. He told the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference the city is looking for more federal money. The mayor is “hopeful they’ll be able to find additional funding by the summer,” Roach said.

Better neighborhoods get priority

The city has drawn hard lines surrounding which neighborhoods get help first. More densely populated areas that are just beginning to fray with abandoned homes will get the bulldozers first. Areas that are already largely abandoned will have to wait. That means dozens of demolitions and clean-ups can take place on one street, while a block away homes are left to wither, their windows broken out, foundations cracked and garbage strewn around.

“It became pretty simple: Where are you going to do the most good with the money you’re spending,” said Craig Fahle, director of public affairs for the Detroit Land Bank Authority. “Where is the money going to have the biggest impact on the most people?”

Working with the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, the land bank has flooded the chosen areas with money to knock down houses, taken owners of vacant homes to court and sold the abandoned home in the best condition at auction.

The city based those decisions on where they felt a dollar invested could bring the greatest return, trying to identify “tipping point” neighborhoods that could be saved.

A review of census data shows the areas getting immediate attention are indeed those with the most people. These priority neighborhoods also have the highest rates of owner-occupancy, with higher household income and lower vacancy rates.

While the administration of former Mayor Dave Bing stumbled in its initial call for a sweeping renovation of city neighborhoods (Bing met fierce resistance when he urged residents to move to the city’s “population centers,” warning that those in abandoned neighborhoods would receive fewer services if they stayed put), Duggan has been careful to avoid any rhetoric that suggests forced relocations.

Still, there are lines, and they divide.

Asked what the city’s message is to residents outside the targeted demolition neighborhoods, Fahle said, “We’re not in your neighborhood – yet,” and adding, “But we want to get there. It may take a while but we want to get there.”

‘Winners and Losers’

Jim Rokakis is well aware of the problem Detroit leaders face. As a one-time Cleveland city council member and later treasurer of Cuyahoga County, Rokakis saw what blight was doing to Cleveland and he became an instrumental leader in creating the Cuyahoga County Land Bank. He knows what triage means for a city.

“It means there’s winners and losers,” he said bluntly.

But like battlefield triage is designed to treat those most in need, Detroit’s efforts have their own logic. By pouring finite resources into finite areas of the city, Detroit can show visible, momentum-building results. Detroit’s scattershot approach of the past left the city looking pretty much the same.

“You can nibble away at the edges but you will always be nibbling at the edges,” Rokakis said, who supports Detroit’s efforts to target specific areas.

In 2013, the Detroit Blight Authority, a private nonprofit group, targeted 14 blocks in the northwest neighborhood of Brightmoor for blight removal and added 21 more last year, creating a template now on display across the city.

A number of blight removal advocates traveled to New Orleans and Baltimore to witness efforts in those cities. Though the scale of the problem there is dwarfed by Detroit’s, the lesson was the same from both.

“It became very clear,” said Chris Uhl, vice president of social innovation for the Skillman Foundation, who was on the blight removal task force. “You absolutely had to target.”

Attacking vacancies

In addition to the more than 3,700 demolitions or planned demolitions since last year, the Detroit Land Bank has taken action on another 2,852 vacant properties, citing the owners for vacancy and demanding they remedy the problem or lose the building, the city reports. Of those, 1,762 went to court, leading to 440 consent agreements and 362 default judgments. Hundreds of other owners have simply donated their property to the city.

The city has not lost any of its nuisance abatement cases in county court, Fahle said.

The goal is to use the court’s authority to force owners to turn a vacant structure into an occupied one. And for those well-kept properties the city already controls through donation or tax foreclosure, the city is turning to the auction block. Although just 79 have been sold, 182 have been closed upon and another 1,464 are in the auction pipeline, according to the city.

Combined, the auctions, demolitions and citations are part of the three-pronged effort in the targeted neighborhoods. “If you want to do this comprehensively, you had to do it all,” Uhl said. “You have to have a lot of different solutions.”

Out in the neighborhoods, those efforts may be difficult to see at first glance.

On Runyon on the east side, one block of 30 parcels in the Osborn targeted area had just 21 homes. Only seven appeared occupied. Several blocks east, outside the targeted area, more homes were occupied though some would benefit if others nearby were knocked down. Yet two blocks west, most homes were occupied, the lawns managed.

On one of those blocks of Barlow, James Pureifoi, 43, was changing a tire recently. He’s glad he’s moved from the Harper and Gratiot area to Barolow, where most of the homes still stand and are occupied. But he lives just outside the Osborn area that is being targeted for home demolitions and he chafes when he learns he’s on the wrong side of the line. He can see three boarded up homes from his porch and he said he deals with the crime that pervades the area.

“I don’t like that (one area is) being picked because everywhere needs help,” he said.
From ‘apathy to excitement’

Uhl, Fahle and others hope the targeted approach will invigorate residents. In the neighborhoods receiving help now, neighbors will be more prone to pick up a shovel or rake and tend to their own corner of the world. “It turns (people) from apathy to excitement,” Uhl said.

With time in short supply – the city got just 18 months to spend the first $50 million – the city is focused on leveraging that excitement. And, according to Fahle, the mayor is leading the charge, peppering housing officials with questions during weekly sessions about specific blocks and lots.

Research has shown that demolishing blighted homes in troubled neighborhoods can raise the property values for those still occupied. Research funded by Cleveland area nonprofits showed that demolitions add value, depending on the overall quality of the neighborhood and the proximity of the affected homes to the demolition.

That same study, though, also showed that some neighborhoods are too far gone to see values rise. Not that those residents don’t deserve attention, Rokakis said. It’ll make the neighborhoods safer and points to the value of tackling the issues earlier. “We should have staunched the bleeding earlier,” he said of Cleveland. “We’re in mop-up mode.”

Detroit’s leaders say they are anticipating a day in which the city’s strongest neighborhoods, scattered across Midtown, the northwest side, and east near the border with the Grosse Pointe communities are thriving again; when the appearance of a “for sale” sign indicates a future resident is coming, not a backhoe.

“We can envision a day in East English Village, when the only time a home is empty is when the owner has moved and it’s waiting for the new owner to move in,” Fahle said.

Until then, the demolitions will continue, court cases will be filed and the auction block will be full of Detroit properties, a couple neighborhoods at a time.