Metro cities weigh steel as tool in blight fight

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Highland Park — Sheets of steel cover the doors and windows of a vacant house on Church Street, where an 11-year-old girl was raped after she was abducted at gunpoint while walking to school in December.

By Christmas Eve, the property and a neighboring abandoned house were outfitted with the security measure in a move that has deterred crime in this Highland Park neighborhood and encouraged the city to further invest in the tool for its war against blight.

Highland Park Fire Chief Derek Hillman said the city has long been exploring ways to preserve hundreds of vacant properties vulnerable to drug activity, arson, squatters and other crimes.

“Even before the assault, a priority within the city was trying to find a way to secure these homes better,” he said. “It’s not just how do we take care of it for now, we’re thinking long-term.”

Growing interest in the steel blight-fighting tool has some pressing for more innovative security measures in neighboring Detroit as well.

An emphasis on revitalizing and repopulating neighborhoods is stirring debate over the best methods for securing properties in the city with nearly 50,000 vacant structures.

At least one company is urging city officials, community groups and organizations to favor pricier steel window and door security systems over traditional plywood or Plexiglass board-ups to cut down on crime, insulate the housing stock and improve property values.

The steel security can cost about $1,600 with installation for a house with 10 windows and two doors, compared to about $850 for plywood.

The Detroit Land Bank Authority, which uses plywood for most board-ups, said it’s evaluating steel for use on properties identified for the Duggan administration’s home auction program. But it contends that branching out beyond that could prove costly and controversial among residents who believe it sends a stark message about the level of abandonment in some city neighborhoods.

Farmington Hills-based S.E.T. Products Inc. donated materials for the initial Highland Park board-ups and has been working with consultants who are reaching out to community leaders throughout the Midwest to promote steel security.

Political strategist Eric Foster created Detroit-based JNF Global Product Solutions in February as a wholesale entity for steel board-up vendors. He, along with two partners, has been working with S.E.T. and a second supplier, Shields Up, on the effort that he said improves the potential to rehabilitate and reuse properties.

Foster contends that poor security destroys home value and hurts the surrounding properties on the block.

“If (a home is) stripped, vandalized and used for crime, who is going to give a loan for that?” said Foster, who formed the company to address the growing interest in steel security among cities, school districts, counties and government entities.

The city’s land bank is open to proposals for securing its inventory, including using steel, and will be seeking board-up proposals for bundles of homes eligible for the auction program as they come online.

“We’re more than happy to talk to companies that want to offer this,” said Craig Fahle, a spokesman for the land bank. “We’ll listen to any proposals that come in.”

Fahle added some Detroit neighborhoods are wary of how boarding could impact image.

“Not everybody is on the same page in terms of how they want this to be handled,” he said.

Some property management firms already use steel to secure units in Detroit. It’s also gaining traction with Detroit nonprofits and community groups and in nearby Inkster.

“It’s one of those decisions that people may not think about as they drive through a neighborhood and see vacant properties,” said Danielle Lewinski, vice president and director of Michigan Initiatives for the Center for Community Progress, a Flint-based national nonprofit focused on blight solutions.

But boarding materials and the other mechanics of maintaining abandoned properties are critical, Lewinski added.

“A lot of those factors really augment the safety of that property, that block and the overall marketability of the neighborhood,” she said. “Finding ways to increase property value and occupancy are central components for ways to deal with diminishing Detroit’s vacancy. It’s hugely important.”

The Skillman Foundation is “strongly considering” steel security boarding for a pilot project in the Cody Rouge neighborhood.

Chris Uhl, Skillman’s vice president of social innovations, said the foundation is evaluating the product in partnership with the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance for about 20 houses.

If they go with steel, it would be purchased by the alliance with funding assistance from Skillman. The community group would then own and be able to reuse the steel on future properties, he said.

The foundation has long worked with many partners to secure vacant properties with plywood.

“It’s something we’ve always done,” he said. “This is the first time we’re saying, ‘Maybe there’s a better way.’ ”

It’s critical to evaluate other methods as development projects climb, Uhl said.

“It’s a situation where no one has ever thought deeply about it,” he said. “Most have traditionally thrown the plywood up, but especially when securing dangerous properties at scale and developing properties at scale, it’s one of those things that needs to be considered.”

In recent months, Mayor Mike Duggan’s Department of Neighborhoods has been supplying wood to some neighborhood groups interested in doing board- ups on their own.

Brian Farkas, director of special projects for the city’s Building Authority, said neighborhood district managers have been dropping off plywood.

The effort started a few months ago within Brightmoor, Littlefield and Woodbridge. It breaks down to about $100 per house and, so far, it’s been “incredibly successful,” he said.

“There’s a certain reality that we can’t do everything, everywhere at every time. But we can certainly partner with the residents to do this together,” Farkas said. “It’s a very cost-effective way to deliver services.”

Carol Pickens, community strategist for the Littlefield Community Association, said the group of about 1,000 neighborhood members monitor vacant lots and do some boarding on their own.

“There’s a lot of things that people can do,” Pickens said. “Every home that’s vacant, every home that’s active, you want to know your community.”