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Crime in Detroit neighborhoods: Blight and illegal dumping

Jun 30, 2017

One of the big issues in Detroit is blight. People walking away from their properties or foreclosures are the base of the problem. After that, it’s people stealing things out of the empty house.

Some neighborhoods have been devastated by abandoned homes and the scrappers who strip them. The MorningSide neighborhood on Detroit’s east side hasn’t hit the level of devastation, but it’s been hit pretty hard.

Rev. DaRell Reed is a pastor, a homeowner, and a landlord in the MorningSide neighborhood. He says foreclosures have led to blight across the city of Detroit.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Reverend DaRell Reed is the President of the MorningSide Community Organization. He’s also a resident and a landlord. He remembers back in 2006 when things started to go wrong.

“I was driving through the community and I saw dumpsters everywhere in front of houses. I say, ‘What is going on?’ I believe that’s when the first wave of people were put out of their houses for foreclosure. And it consistently happened every month,” he said.

First it was the mortgage foreclosures by banks that had been involved in predatory lending in the 1990s. Reed says once the houses were empty, there was a rush to steal furnaces, electrical boxes, and architectural details of any value.

“Someone with aluminum siding on their house, the entire house would be stripped. And you’ll see a guy walking down the street with a buggy full of aluminum siding,” Reed said.

It was blatant, and it was just the beginning.

After mortgage foreclosures, property values plummeted further. Real estate assessments did not. For years, people were taxed as if their homes were worth far more than their actual value. After crime, tax foreclosures are now Detroit’s biggest problem.

Since Detroit’s bankruptcy, priorities for the police department have changed. Yes, violent crime is still the top priority, but it’s believed minor crimes can quickly lead to a neighborhood’s decline.

Neighborhood Police Officer DeAndre Gaines.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“If a window is broken, then someone will think no one cares about that property and they’ll start dumping on that property or, you know, squatting in the property, or maybe trying to do other illegal activities in that property,” explained Neighborhood Police Officer DeAndre Gaines.

Unlike a regular patrol officer, Neighborhood Police Officers are assigned to certain neighborhoods. It’s Detroit’s version of community policing.

Riding with him in the patrol car, Gaines explained he’s looking for blight violations. He’ll ticket property owners who don’t properly board up vacant houses. He’ll cite people for high grass, trash containers out when it’s not pick-up day, or setting out bulk items for trash pick-up too early.

“Different things like that. That’s why mainly our top things that we look for to make the community look better, make it look more livable, and make the property value increase instead of decrease,” he said.

Abandoned houses decrease property values.

In the MorningSide neighborhood, the Detroit Land Bank Authority reports it’s  had to tear down 260 structures in the last three years. Seventeen more are either contracted or in the pipeline for demolition. Neighbors are hoping that happens soon.

Gaines says the Land Bank has been a good partner. When he finds its properties have not been mowed or need to be boarded up, it’s quick to get someone out to take care of the problem.

But, some neighbors complain the Land Bank is not enforcing its own rules. When it sells a house, it’s supposed to be fixed up and someone living there within six months. Some houses bought from the Land Bank have been sitting empty for two years.

A spokesman for the Land Bank said they want to give the new owners every chance of success. If that means waiting a little longer, it’s better than seizing the house and starting all over.

Gaines says those things the neighbors in MorningSide can control –such as lawns and trash cans- are important to enforce. But, there are some things beyond the control of the neighbors.

Officer DeAndre Gaines chats with a DPW worker (not seen) as he gathers illegally dumped items along Barham Street in the MorningSide neighborhood of Detroit.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“And probably the biggest issue in MorningSide is this illegal dumping,” he said.

Any vacant lot or abandoned house is a target for dumpers. But there are favorite places such as Barham Street in the MorningSide neighborhood. (See previous story about the future of Barham Street here. )

“It’s the perfect dumping ground. You know, you don’t have many houses,” Gaines said.

We drove by a couple of couches and a bunch of other trash. I’ve driven this street several times before and there’s always something new that’s been dumped.

“It’s always something. And you’ve got City of Detroit DPW out here,” Gaines noted.

We stop. That day two different crews of Detroit’s Department of Public Works were cleaning construction debris, piles of tree limbs, furniture, and just household trash dumped along the street.

It’s hard to say who is dumping. Neighbors who’ve found envelopes with addresses in the trash have done what they can to track down those dumpers. But big trucks sometimes dump construction debris in the middle of the night. Few are caught.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.