Investigative
7:00 am
Tue June 24, 2014

Detroit Mayor Duggan's blight elimination effort

Thirty percent of the structures in Detroit are considered blight.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Listen to the report.

This week Michigan Radio and the Detroit Journalism Cooperative are looking at how the city is functioning under bankruptcy. One of the biggest problems facing Detroit is the huge number of abandoned houses, buildings, and vacant lots. Here's a look at what’s changed in the six months since Mayor Mike Duggan took office.

Every Detroit mayor for decades has talked about blight. There have been plans and efforts to demolish burned-out houses, tear down crumbling buildings, and selling vacant lots to next-door neighbors. But the pace of demolition has not kept up with the number of people walking away from properties.

Until recently, no one had a really good handle on how big the problem was or how much money it would take to clean up the mess.

That changed last month when the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, working with the mayor, issued a major report. One of the co-chairs is Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert.

“So when you add it all together, 30% of all the structures in the city of Detroit – this has nothing to do with vacant land – are blighted, or 70,500 of them,” Gilbert announced at the release of the report.

He explained that just to tear down the houses and small apartments that are beyond saving would cost $850 million dollars. For a bankrupt city, that’s a lot of cash. But a combination of federal money, private donations, fire escrow funds, and money set aside in the city’s bankruptcy plan all add up.

“We’ve already got $456 million of the $850 million that we need,” Gilbert stated.

But, that’s just for the houses in the neighborhoods.  It’ll cost more than a billion dollars on top of the $850 million to tear down the larger abandoned commercial and industrial buildings.

Workers removed plywood from boarded up houses in the Osborn neighborhood to allow potential buyers to see what they could bid on.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Mayor Mike Duggan says, still, this is a good start.

“Six months ago we had no strategy and no funding.   We’re standing here today; we’ve got the strategy and we’re getting started on the funding and I’m very excited about our future,” Mayor Duggan said.

Under Duggan, demolition crews increased the number of tear-downs from about 150 a month to hundreds a month.

“They’ve identified the worst of the houses and they’re demo-ing. We expect by fall to be up to 800 a month,” Duggan told reporters.

And the city is selling houses.

The mayor’s Facebook site is like looking at a real estate agent’s website. Right now 14 houses a week are being sold to people willing to fix them up and make sure they’re occupied.

The city is going after homeowners in upscale neighborhoods to fix up their homes and suing those who don’t.

Demolition crews working in the Brightmoor neighborhood.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Most of the people in the neighborhoods are happy about the demolitions.

The Brightmoor neighborhood is being cleared of abandoned houses and vacant lots are being cleaned up. Hundreds of blighted structures have been torn down during the last two years.  Lowanda Anderson says the 98 acres of cleared lots has made the neighborhood safer.

“It means a whole lot. Where the people won’t be getting raped and kids won’t be getting killed in them,” she said.

But there are concerns about what happens next.

John George, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Motor City Blight Busters Detroit, Incorporated, with wife Alicia George (left) and Tonya Murphy at Motor City Java House in the Old Redford neighborhood.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

John George is executive director and co-founder of Motor City Blight Busters Detroit. He works in the Brightmoor and Old Redford neighborhoods. He says the neighbors want to have some input on what happens to that vacant land.

“We’re willing to work with anyone that’s willing to work with us, but we also want to have a degree of self-determination of what we see happen with this land after it’s cleared.”

George says he warned Mike Duggan to be careful about the campaign promises he was making when he was running for office.

“'Please, don’t promise us anything unless you really plan on delivering.’ And, again, he kind of – I caught him off guard, but he must have taken it to heart because everything that he’s promised he is doing," George recalled. 

"And, I’m so proud of our mayor and so excited about the possibilities of a stabilized and revitalized Motor City,” George added.

But there are a lot of obstacles ahead for the mayor and the city.

There’s that more than a billion dollars to come up with to demolish the existing blight.

Fewer than half of Detroit’s residents are paying their property taxes. That means more tax foreclosures and more houses to sell or demolish in the future.

But for the first time Detroit has a fully thought-out plan that could eliminate the existing blight in five years. That could help slow the out-migration of residents and even attract new families and businesses to the city.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.

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