Fixing Detroit's blight, whatever it takes

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | November 4, 2014

Motown. Motor City.

Detroit by any name in the '50s and '60s was riding high -- a golden hood ornament perched atop a Cadillac DeVille. Who would have imagined that the American automobile industry, then in all its glory, would crash along with the rest of the economy in 2008?

The exodus that left so much of the city's homes and commercial properties abandoned actually started long before the Great Recession brought GM to its knees begging for help from the federal government. Detroit's serious decline began with the oil shortages in the '70s and the effect that had on a city dependent for its prosperity on petroleum-fueled cars. The extent of Detroit's condition, however, became national headlines with the emergence of so many other Recession casualties.

Once Detroit's decay gained widespread attention, help seemed to appear overnight from everywhere: the federal government; the city of Detroit; concerned residents; and an assortment of other private investors and speculators including the popular HGTV's Nicole Curtis, "Rehab Addict." A September 2014 "homecoming" conference sponsored by Crain's Detroit Business gathered notable Detroit ex-pats like Curtis to bring them on board in the fight to save their former home town. A great deal of publicity has surrounded Detroit's efforts to combat the blight that's afflicting that once-proud American city. So what are they doing to help?

Detroit's plight is Detroit's blight

Detroit's problems are extensive. Loss of jobs and a crumbling economy left many of its businesses and residents floundering. Some residents are squatting on foreclosed properties. Others simply left. At its peak, Detroit's population was 1.8 million. Now it's 700,000. In 2010, the Detroit Data Collaborative's survey found that one third of Detroit's properties were abandoned. Today the battle cry calls for getting rid of Detroit's blight.

Properties with any one of the following conditions are considered a blight in need of intervention:

  • Public nuisance
  • Attractive nuisance (dangerous conditions that might attract and harm trespassing children)
  • Fire hazard or other danger
  • Inoperable, disconnected, removed or destroyed utilities, e.g. plumbing, heating, sewage
  • Tax-reverted property (foreclosed due to non-payment of property taxes)
  • Owned or controlled by the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA)
  • Vacant five or more years and not up to code
  • Code violations that pose "severe and immediate health and safety threats"
  • Open to the elements and trespassers
  • Slated for demolition as determined by the Detroit Buildings Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED)

The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force that convened in November 2013 used the above guidelines when they surveyed the condition of all 380,000 parcels in the city and submitted their findings and recommendations in a report May 27, 2014. They determined 73,035 blighted residential structures require intervention -- 40,077 must be structurally removed, either by demolition or deconstruction. Of those, some contain asbestos and/or lead paint and will require abatement measures, adding to the cost of removing the structure. However, alternate modes of removal are considered more feasible. These allow for salvaging reusable materials and artisan features or reducing demolition costs:

  • deconstruction
  • hybrid deconstruction
  • recycling

Besides demolition, interventions could mean either securing the property or repairing and/or rehabbing it. The task force developed two Strategic Assessment Triage Tools (SATT) that helped them determine the best intervention for each property from the results of both an environmental and a structural inspection. However, the report focused on removal first and foremost: "It is imperative that all blight be removed to create the right environment and market conditions for successful rehabilitation of other homes and even new construction."

Who's saving Detroit's homes and neighborhoods?

Even before newly elected mayor Mike Duggan took office at the beginning of 2014, he began putting together programs to facilitate the city's restoration, some of which included the following:

  • Creating the Department of Neighborhoods to facilitate transparent communication between the city and its residents
  • Refocusing the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA), which is now dedicated to making abandoned and foreclosed properties productive again. The DLBA also conducts auctions and demolitions as well as partnering with the community and the city "to preserve, revitalize, and transform blighted properties."
  • Initiating special programs for "responsible homeowners," such as the $1 million "forgivable" loans for home improvement in the Marygrove University area
  • Supporting legislation to prevent criminal and irresponsible acts such as stripping homes to illegally sell materials; squatting; and property speculation scams

Community groups and individual residents have been taking an active role in doing whatever they can to keep the blight from spreading such as mowing the grass of abandoned properties. Many communities have banded together to plant small farms and gardens on vacant land. Non-profit organizations like Life Remodeled, dedicated to helping schools and neighborhoods renovate, have teamed up with local corporate sponsors like GM and Quicken Loans, who have supplied volunteers and money to help with neighborhood rehab projects. The Skillman Foundation has pledged $100 million over 10 years to help Detroit's neighborhoods get back on track. In conjunction with FirstMerit Bank, Skillman offers residents $15,000 to cover a downpayment and closing costs to buy recently rehabbed homes in the Cody Rouge neighborhood. FirstMerit provides the same offer through BuildingDetroit.org's auction program to buyers in other Detroit neighborhoods, as well.

Ex-pats to the rescue

Even some of those former Detroiters who left long ago for greener pastures have been contributing to the cause. A mystery investor who paid $3 million to buy a scattered parcel of 6,350 abandoned properties and vacant lots at auction in October turned out to be a former resident, Herb Strather. Strather was quoted in the Huffington Post on October 29, 2014, as saying, "The idea of redevelopment in my community would be a work of love," and he wants to "arrest the decay and rebuild," as well as involve community developers who had plans to buy some of the properties included in the parcel. Detractors are skeptical he will be able to come up with enough money even for the demolitions that are needed.

It remains to be seen whether all of these efforts are too little too late, and the forces of economics are more than all Detroit's good intentions can overcome. But even if it seems like the glory days for Detroit are long over, the Chairs of the Blight Removal Task Force remain optimistic. "We believe that despite the enormity of Detroit's challenges, our city's best days are ahead of it."

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.