Blight fight crosses Detroit's borders

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Kathy Angerer, director of community and economic development for Hamtramck, says a count of blighted properties, such as one on Yemens, is key to change.

Detroit — – The war on blight has spread beyond Detroit into Hamtramck and Highland Park, and soon other Michigan cities.

The two cities surrounded by Detroit are undertaking their first comprehensive attempts to count the number of blighted properties within their boundaries. Both municipalities have lost tens of thousands of residents and are pocked with burned-out homes and abandoned buildings. Empty structures became havens for crime and squatters, and caused property values to plummet.

Paint on a Hamtramck house on Belmont addresses the problem facing the city: Pockets of burned-out, abandoned buildings that are causing property values to plummet from what they once were.

Now, officials say, there is new hope about finally eliminating them.

"Go down any street and you will get a sense of what we are dealing with," said Louis Starks, Highland Park's community and economic development director. Henry Ford built his first auto plant in the town once known as the "City of Trees" nearly 100 years ago. Part of that Model T plant is among the estimated 3,000 empty buildings in the city, which amounts to half the structures left.

"This is what Hamtramck blight is like," said Kathy Angerer, Hamtramck's director of community and economic development, as she stood in front of a shell of a house on Yemans Street. "It's not rows of empty houses, but one on a street full of houses still occupied. Imagine if this was green space," she said.

Getting accurate counts has been out of the reach for the cash-strapped cities. But thanks to funding from the Kresge and Skillman foundations, and a Detroit startup company that invented something called "blexting," such a goal is now obtainable. So is federal funding to fight blight.

Blighted structures in Highland Park, such as ones at 2nd and Cortland, could be eliminated if the city is successful in securing federal funds.

Last week, Highland Park and Hamtramck teamed up with the Motor City Mapping project that allowed 20 workers to go out with camera phones and tablets and survey every parcel in each city. The money came from the foundations, with support from the nonprofit Data Driven Detroit and Detroit-based business Rock Ventures.

The Motor City Mapping project is the brainchild of Detroit startup Loveland Technologies. Loveland has been exploring ways to digitize Detroit's property information and make the data available to the public. And that's what going to happen with the information the surveyors gathered, called "blexting," which is a merging of the words blight and texting.

Louis Starks, director of community and economic development for Highland Park, says that the city needs to build on successes such as Woodward’s ability to attract retail.

Using a "blexting" app that's available to the public, surveyors took photos of every parcel and answered a series of questions about each — about 6,700 in Hamtramck and 6,600 in Highland Park.

Results of the surveys are expected next week. It couldn't come at a better time because the two are among 12 Michigan cities vying for $75 million in federal funding reserved to dealing with eliminating blight.

The program, to be run by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, will work in Detroit, Ecorse, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Inkster and River Rouge in Wayne County as well as Adrian, Ironwood, Jackson, Lansing, Muskegon Heights and Port Huron.

The Farrand Park apartments are among the structures in Highland Park that are in disrepair. The city and neighboring Hamtramck have teamed up with a mapping project to get an accurate count of properties.

"For too long, blight has driven down property values and stifled growth in some of our communities," Gov. Rick Snyder said earlier this month.

"Getting an accurate count is so important because now we will have a good handle of what we are dealing with," Hamtramck's Angerer said. "That will only strengthen our chances to get the federal funding and really help us direct our limited funding and energy to promote all our wonderful assets."

Hamtramck hums with immigrant energy — Eastern European, Asian and Middle Eastern — as well as a deeply rooted arts community. It's what attracted new resident Claire Montebello, 27, who moved recently from St. Louis, Missouri. "It's almost a clash of many cultures, which kind of fascinates me. In terms of the blight, it's not out of control and it seems like solutions can be there."

Highland Park says there are more assets and positives than many realize. Despite the huge loss of residents and properties for decades, things may have actually bottomed out, some contend.

Auto supplier Magna opened a plant there in 2010 that supplies seating to Detroit automakers and employs 600 people. Two years ago, it completed a $2.2 million expansion,

A call center operator last year invested about $3 million into a building, adding 200 jobs. The Model T Plaza shopping center opened in 1998, some of which is located where the Model T plant once stood. The shopping center has often been fully occupied.

"Woodward Avenue is the strength we can build on," Starks said. Woodward is vital to Highland Park and despite the decades of loss, the avenue still retains the ability to attract retail.

There is also the possibility that the M-1 streetcar rail could return to Highland Park's Woodward.

"If we found a way to get rid of the empty structures, the whole conversation could change," Starks said.