Detroit officials see hope for 40K blight list houses

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Just over a year after a task force report revealed Detroit had the potential to lose more than 80,000 structures to blight, officials say they have determined only about half must come down.

Under orders from Mayor Mike Duggan, the Detroit Land Bank Authority pulled together a refined assessment on how many homes will need to be razed. The authority determined that some structures that had shown signs of blight and were potential candidates for demolition can be saved.

“As we dig into these properties and see what’s possible with them, we are recognizing that more can be saved — much more than people originally thought,” said Craig Fahle, a spokesman for the land bank. “We’re learning that these houses can be preserved and people are actually willing to preserve them.”

Last spring, a Blight Removal Task Force released findings from the most comprehensive effort in the city’s history to catalog Detroit’s abandoned and dangerous lots. The study found that 84,641 properties in the city were blighted or vacant. The cost to tear all of them down would have been about $850 million.

Fahle said the land bank embarked on its deep dive into the housing conditions over the last few months and concluded many of the homes can be salvaged.

“Just because they have indications of blight doesn’t mean they have a fatal flaw,” he said.

The latest findings back up the task force report, which found that 40,077 buildings were beyond repair. Another 38,429 had been vacant and at-risk of falling prey to blight.

Detroit Public Schools Foundation President Glenda Price, who sat on the task force, said the study found some properties were blighted but had potential, and others were at a “tipping point,” meaning they weren’t yet blighted but if left uncared for, would degrade into blight.

“There had to be some intervention in order for all of those structures to not need to be torn down,” she said. “That was the question: whether or not there would be appropriate intervention.”

Price says it has been Duggan’s strategy to repopulate the city. But she questions whether preserving all the homes is really the best fit for Detroit.

“At this point, I put it into the wishful thinking category,” said Price, adding that while she agrees the city’s population loss has diminished and that Detroit will stabilize. “... I find it really hard to believe that there will be significant population growth.”

Price said many people still gravitate toward the suburbs. Twenty-somethings are moving into the city, but the condition of schools and the lack of amenities are keeping families and higher-level executives away.

“There are some very real challenges related to families moving in,” she said. “If you really are going to repopulate the city you can’t do it with single 20-somethings. It has to be families. I just don’t see it happening.”

Fahle says the city’s home auction and nuisance abatement programs have helped rejuvenate formerly neglected properties.

The land bank, he said, has posted notices on 4,118 blighted properties in about two dozen neighborhoods since its nuisance program launched in April 2014.

Of those, complaints were filed against 2,730 property owners, ordering them to make fixes to properties or risk losing them. The land bank got default judgments on 715 properties, 416 property owners entered into agreements to retain homes and 77 others handed houses over. About 300 other complaint cases are pending in court, Fahle said.

The land bank has about 25,000 houses in its inventory. It has been evaluating those parcels and using data from other sources including the postal service, Motor City Mapping and field work, to determine if the homes can be saved or need to be demolished, Fahle said.

“Getting a handle on the property inventory here is not a small undertaking, but it’s something we absolutely have to do and we’re doing it,” he said.

The clearer picture of the city’s demolition needs come as the U.S. Senate initiated a controversial proposal to fund federal transportation projects by rescinding money that Detroit and other Michigan cities are using to eliminate neighborhood blight.

The plan, negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, sought to pull back unused money from a fund within the Troubled Asset Relief Program meant for foreclosure prevention and blight removal.

The bill has since been revised to not touch the Hardest Hit Fund.

Detroit has received $107 million in federal blight remediation funding. It’s taking down 100-150 houses per week, with a typical demolition costing around $13,000 per house, Fahle said.

Beyond the federal dollars, the city is also drawing from fire escrow dollars and block grant funding.

John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, says the city has projected its funding would get it through October. “The mayor is deeply engaged daily in that effort to identify funding to keep the blight removal program going,” he said.

Longtime resident Betty Brooks says she can’t say whether repopulating neighborhood houses will work for Detroit, but stressed affordable loft, apartment and condo living in the downtown area should also be a consideration.

Brooks and her husband, Bill, a former mayoral contender, downsized a few years ago, selling their home in Indian Village to relocate to a riverfront apartment.

“Prices for apartments and condos are going up sky-high in Midtown and downtown,” said Brooks, who chairs the board of trustees for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. “It’s hard to get one unless you pay an exorbitant amount of money.”

Roach says the administration recognizes the demand in and around Detroit’s downtown and is working to make sure that new projects incorporate affordable housing components.

It’s already come into play for developments proposed this year in Brush Park and in Midtown in the former Eddystone Hotel near the future Detroit Red Wings arena, and for the old Strathmore Hotel.

Detroit real estate broker Austin Black II says he has sold properties in the city for more than a decade and retaining the neighborhood housing stock is a good thing.

“A lot of people moving into neighborhoods are spending a significant amount of money renovating the homes,” said Black, president of City Living Detroit. “It’s also encouraging for the people who already live in the neighborhood to see positive changes happening.”