December 19, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bankrupt, Not Broken

United strategy needed to cure Detroit's cancerous blight

Too many cooks in Detroit's blight fighting kitchen distract from an all-out attack on neighborhood decay

Mayor Dave Bing made the elimination of blight a priority. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)

Detroit suffers from an aggressive cancer. It’s called blight. And it’s a disease that will spread if it isn’t cut out soon. Abandoned homes and garbage-laced streets beget more of the same — as well as the crime and despair that go with them.

Blight is the cause of so many other problems. That’s why it’s at the top of the to-do lists for Detroit’s leaders. Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, Mayor-elect Mike Duggan, the newly-elected City Council and many in the business and the nonprofit world have all said the same thing: Blight is priority No. 1.

The numbers are appalling: Nearly 80,000 abandoned structures mar the neighborhoods, and a third of its 140 square miles are empty. Mayor Dave Bing got close to his goal of tearing down 10,000 houses by the end of the year, but that is just scratching the surface. To tackle blight before it metastasizes further, the city has to direct a targeted approach to fixing it. Several groups are forming strategies right now to combat the problem, but blight will be best addressed with a unified strategy and a unified effort.

Much can be said for new energy and development in downtown and midtown. It’s progress, and it’s visible. Yet many of Detroit’s neighborhoods remain in desperate shape. As long as blight and crime are so prevalent, the city won’t be able to retain its current residents, nor attract new families.

A way forward in Brightmoor

In Brightmoor, which is located in the northwest corner of Detroit, blight has become an everyday disgrace. It’s only a few blocks from Grandmont-Rosedale, but these adjacent areas might as well be on different sides of the state. Too many streets in Brightmoor have become dumping grounds for garbage, tires and other unwanted items. And the city’s done nothing to stop it.

Rotting, abandoned houses — perfect hideaways for drug dealers, gangs and other criminals — are rampant. But now some streets are starting to come alive. Thanks to the efforts of the Detroit Blight Authority, a nonprofit spearheaded by Bill Pulte, abandoned homes in Brightmoor are being razed in a systematic manner, along with all the brush and debris. It’s somewhat ironic that Pulte, grandson of the man who started the housing construction giant Pulte Group, is becoming so vested in tearing homes down.

Yet Pulte understands that to make this lost land worth something again, it has to become “reinvestment grade.” “Fix the way the neighborhood feels,” says Brian Farkas, Blight Authority co-founder. Through a process that bundles homes ripe for razing, Pulte’s blight authority has figured out how to cut the cost in half — from more than $10,000 per home to less than $5,000.

Large swaths of open land are appearing across Brightmoor, making it much harder for criminals to hide and linger. It’s also given hope to residents like Ray Crighton. He’s a formidable man, who slightly resembles Mr. Clean. The Detroit native has spent most of his life in Brightmoor, and he stayed even after the neighborhood started falling apart. The tool and die worker owns a handful of properties surrounding his home.

When Crighton looks toward the end of his street, he’s met with a view of open land on both sides of the road. That wasn’t always the case. Not long ago, this land was covered in overgrown brush and dilapidated homes. “It looked pretty bad,” he says. And he was skeptical when he first heard about Pulte’s project. Crighton’s a believer now. “It’s nice to have a big backyard. Now it’s like farmland to me,” he says. “It’s great to see something positive happening.”

Find a 'single blight strategy'

Given the scope of the blight and the city’s limited resources, all interested parties have to work together. In a recent TV interview, Duggan made a salient observation: There are “about seven different cooks in the blight kitchen — we need to have a single blight strategy.” Along those lines, we place much hope with the newly created Detroit Blight Task Force, which is a federal, state and city partnership working in conjunction with nonprofits and businesses. Monday, surveyors with the task force began counting and documenting every vacant building in the city. The end result should be the most extensive property database Detroit’s ever had.

Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert is part of a three-member board that directs the task force, joined by Glenda Price, president of the Detroit Public Schools Foundation and Linda Smith, executive director of Detroit nonprofit, U-Snap-Bac. The project is funded by the Skillman and Kresge foundations, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and Gilbert’s Rock Ventures.

The group met at Marygrove College on Wednesday morning, for a panel discussion moderated by Don Graves — the White House’s man-on-the-ground in Detroit. They said they are working in partnership with others in the city who have already begun undertaking blight, such as Pulte’s Blight Authority. Gilbert said addressing blight is an essential piece for the city’s future, in addition to crime, jobs and education. “We have to lift and bring up the city together,” Gilbert said. He added that Detroit’s redevelopment is not sustainable without neighborhood revitalization.

Tonya Allen, the CEO and soon-to-be president at Skillman, agrees the cancer of blight must be met with a coherent approach. She says Skillman’s involvement with the Blight Authority, as well as the new Blight Task Force, comes with that in mind. “People are coming together,” she says. “We need all hands on deck and to think very strategically.”

The strategic approach to tackling blight is exactly what Detroit needs. This is the assembly-line city, after all. Before the city can make a full recovery, it must first tear down what is holding it back.

Groups like Motor City Blight Busters are removing uninhabitable homes ... (Clarence Tabb Jr / The Detroit News)