September 29, 2011 at 1:00 am

Detroit targets services to healthy neighborhoods

Inspector Jerry Watson posts a blight violation notice at a home on Harvard earlier this month in Detroit. (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

In a city with miles of blight, building inspectors implementing Mayor Dave Bing's vision to reshape Detroit have zeroed in on peeling paint in East English Village.

Officials this month swept through the neighborhood, doling out warnings and violations to homeowners for peeling house paint, missing downspouts, debris-laden driveways and minor fire damage.

In years past, officials may have overlooked such offenses. That's changed as Bing has reprioritized service delivery as part of his Detroit Works Project to refashion neighborhoods.

Residents will see the full brunt of changes in the next six months, but code inspectors already are spending more time in neighborhoods the city considers strong; vacant lots are going uncut in underpopulated areas and federal funds for housing developments are steered to some neighborhoods and away from desolate ones.

It's a model that inspired debate about whether City Hall should choose winners and losers, and even some in neighborhoods with service upgrades are grumbling.

"Why are you starting in my neighborhood?" asked Tawana A. Wilson, 32, who was painting and making repairs for fire damage as ordered by an inspector. "My neighbor recently bought their house foreclosed for $9,000. My mortgage is $90,000. But you are going to ticket me for chipped paint?"

Her homeowners association president, William Barlage, said the strategy makes sense because Detroit needs to move quickly to prevent the creep of blight in its best neighborhoods.

"It's important to maintain the stability of the good so that will maybe transfer into the next neighborhood or block," said Barlage, president of the East English Village Association.

"You have to start somewhere."

The strategy is the first phase of a larger Detroit Works Project that eventually could encourage residents to leave some neighborhoods. That plan is still being formed, and Bing announced the service changes in July that will be rolled out in the next several months.

Under the plan, neighborhoods identified by City Hall as healthy, such as East English Village and Palmer Park, would get more code enforcement, commercial code improvements, home rehabs, streetlight fixes, tree trimming and dump cleanups, but fewer housing demolitions.

That would be reversed for those deemed distressed, such as Brightmoor and the east side surrounding Coleman A. Young International Airport, where demolitions would be focused and some services reduced.

Already, city crews are curtailing grass cutting in so-called distressed neighborhoods, mowing just outside the border of vacant lots. City officials said workers have discretion to cut the entire lot if it's near an occupied home.

City Hall officials say that's a smart use of limited resources. Others worry it's a death knell for some neighborhoods.

"Do all the stakeholders pull up stakes now?" asked the Rev. Jerome Warfield, a Detroit Works Project advisory board member whose church is in Brightmoor. "What do we do? People will not want to spend money in the areas that aren't targeted."

Realtor Austin Black II, another advisory board member, said the method helps the whole city.

"It's very important we don't let neighborhoods that are transitional fall into the category of distressed," Black said. "You want to create the greatest impact possible, which in the long term benefits the entire city."

City officials also want to steer $9.5 million in federal funds to rehab and build homes to developers pitching projects in stable neighborhoods, rather than distressed ones.

The strategy is a disappointment to developer Cynthia Solaka. The second phase of her Penrose Village development — 48 single-family rental houses — could lose out on $1.5 million in federal funds because it's in a neighborhood that's deemed distressed east of Woodward and north of Seven Mile.

"We don't consider it a neighborhood not worth saving," Solaka said. "The light rail stop is there. There is so much going on there."

Marja Winters, deputy director of the Planning and Development Department and co-chair of the project, wouldn't comment on the Penrose proposal.

The city has yet to send out final letters of approval or disapproval to developers seeking funds.

Winters said it would be "irresponsible" for the city to continue to allow developers to build in "distressed" neighborhoods knowing the quality of life for residents won't be as strong.

"It's a tough conversation but what people are recognizing is that the resources are so scarce," Winters said. "Residents now have a basis for our decision making."

City officials have been meeting with neighborhood groups over the last several weeks to explain their strategy.

"They may not like it, but at least they can understand it," Winters said.

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Cornelius Grant of Payne Landscaping mows a vacant lot on Maynard off ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)
Inspector Jerry Watson organizes paperwork after photographing a garage he ... (Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)