Some Detroit neighborhoods are still waiting for the comeback to reach them. Empty, abandoned houses are not only eyesores, but a safety issue.
The positive numbers coming from city and police officials showing reductions in blight and crime don’t resonate with Anthony Smith. His neighborhood has its own statistics.
Citywide, Detroit has demolished 13,000 abandoned houses and installed 65,000 streetlights since 2013. The city last year recorded its lowest number of homicides since 1966.
But in some some parts of town, including Smith’s, the statistics paint a bleaker picture.
Smith, 58, lives on a half-mile stretch of St. Aubin on Detroit’s east side, where 20 of the 58 houses between McNichols and Minnesota are vacant. It’s difficult to see at night in some areas, despite new streetlights.
Last year, there were four homicides, 55 assaults, 17 robberies and 94 reported burglaries in the 11th Precinct’s one square-mile Scout 7 patrol area where Smith lives, according to police data.
Despite figures that show overall reductions in Detroit’s violent crime and blight, Smith and other residents of struggling neighborhoods say they’re still waiting to see change.
“You have squatters in these abandoned houses doing burglaries around here,” said Smith, who lives next door to a vacant bungalow. “Down the street, they sell drugs out of those empty houses. The city needs to do something.”
Smith and other residents say the vacant buildings and darkened streets in their neighborhoods provide cover for criminal activity and feed their fears of being victimized. They contrast the atmosphere on their blocks with downtown’s well-lit avenues and newly renovated storefronts.
Alexis Wiley, chief of staff for Mayor Mike Duggan, said she understands why some feel there are two Detroits.
“I would never say what someone believes is false,” she said. “I think what people are dealing with on a daily basis is very real for them.”
Detroit police Chief James Craig said it can be difficult for residents of high-crime areas to see the improvements.
“If someone is a victim of a violent crime, or they know someone who was a victim, they’re not going to feel safe, no matter what the reality is citywide,” he said. “The fear of crime is very powerful.”
Wiley said the city is working to address issues in all neighborhoods. “For people living in areas where there are still problems, I want them to trust that we’re coming,” she said.
Kellie McCline says she’s tired of waiting.
“Come here and you’ll see droves of children walking to school past the abandoned houses,” said McCline, 44. “That hurts my heart. It’s like, who’s looking out for the kids who have to walk past this every single day?”
Out of the zone
When Detroit conducted a residential parcel survey in 2010, the city had more than 100,000 abandoned buildings and houses. Since Duggan became mayor in 2013, the city has used federal funds to raze more than 13,000 vacant structures, most of which were owned by Detroit’s Land Bank Authority.
There are a few areas that don’t qualify for federal funds, including Smith’s stretch of St. Aubin, which is two blocks from a funded zone.
The U.S. Department of Treasury designates Hardest Hit Funding zones based on population density and other factors. Wiley said 10 percent of the city is outside the zones.
“When the mayor came into office, only 25 percent of the city was covered by HHF,” Wiley said. “But he steadily kept pushing, and now 90 percent of the city is covered.”
Wiley said the abandoned structures outside the federal zones are scheduled to be boarded up “soon.” City officials will then try to find funding to demolish those properties, she said.
“Nobody is under the illusion that the work is done,” she said.
Night and day
Southwest Detroit resident Ron Szostec complained to The Detroit News in 2014 about the lack of working streetlights near his home on Lonyo. He said the darkness made it easy for criminals to prey on residents, and blamed a neighborhood boy’s death on a motorist’s inability to see the youth crossing the street.
Szostec recently said the problem was solved.
“They put in all new streetlights, and everything is good now,” he said. “No complaints at all. The city did a good job.”
But in some areas, including McCline’s east-side neighborhood, it’s still difficult to see at night.
“I can stand in my kitchen window and it is pitch black outside,” she said.
Public Lighting Authority spokesman Dan Austin said while most lighting in Detroit is adequate, workers have returned to neighborhoods to make adjustments since the new lights were installed from 2014-16.
“In the cases in which residents believe that their street is not lit to the national standard, they are encouraged to contact the Public Lighting Authority and we will send someone out to evaluate it, and when necessary, we will move or add lights,” Austin said in an email. “There has been a number of instances in which the PLA has gone out and made such changes.”
Austin added: “It’s also worth noting that the primary purpose of streetlights on major roads is traffic safety, not lighting front yards.”
McCline said it helps when her neighbors turn on their porch lights.
“But not everybody puts their porch lights on, and even when they do put them on, it may not be very illuminating,” she said. “So the chances of every house having their porch light on is next to zero. And the abandoned houses don’t have electricity, so those lights aren’t on.”
McCline’s neighborhood is in a federal Hardest Hit Funding zone, and four abandoned houses on her street have been demolished so far, according to the city’s website.
But she said there are still empty houses remaining on her block, posing a danger to her family.
“In the summer, my daughter and I like to go Wendy’s (up the block). Well, I’m not going to get in my car and drive, when we can just walk. Last summer, (when) she and I were walking, I passed two drug deals (outside an abandoned house).”
McCline said she stopped taking walks with her daughter after that. “I can’t take a chance; what if we walk by when they start shooting at each other?”
The Land Bank, which oversees blight elimination along with the Detroit Building Authority, has had snags. The bank has been the focus of state, local and federal investigations after concerns were raised over bidding practices and spiraling costs.
In June, The News reported that a federal grand jury is focusing on whether federal money was misappropriated while the city spent nearly $200 million to tear down homes after its bankruptcy. No charges have been filed.
Wiley said since the investigation started, “we’ve instituted stronger financial controls to ensure compliance. We have stronger checks and balances in place.”
McCline said she’s happy to see Detroit headed in the right direction.
“I’m not going to lie: I do enjoy the improvements,” she said. “Now I can take my daughter downtown on a Sunday at 3 o’clock in the summertime and it’s bustling. She gets to experience that.
“But I do feel like it’s two Detroits. For those of us who have been here and lived in the city, and supported the city, I feel locked out of certain parts of the resurgence.
“Everybody is hurting. Everybody is looking for a resurgence.”