Detroit ramps up efforts to board up blight

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city on Thursday detailed an ambitious citywide effort to board up 11,000 blighted and abandoned houses over the next two years.

Board-up workers work at a property in Detroit on Thursday as Mayor Mike Duggan details the city’s efforts to combat blight.

Mayor Mike Duggan unveiled plans for the city’s Board Up Bridges initiative in May during the annual Mackinac Policy Conference. On Thursday, he said the program aims to get dangerous properties secured, and it’s putting ex-offenders back to work.

“We’ve got 25,000 more abandoned houses in this city, and at the rate we’re going, it’s going to take us five years to either get them occupied or get them demolished,” Duggan said during a news conference in a neighborhood off Fort Street in southwest Detroit. “What our neighborhood leaders said is ‘that’s fine, but in the meantime, you’ve got children going in and out of these houses. They are a danger. Can’t you take action to secure the houses even if you’re not going to get to demolition for a few years?’ And that led us into this solution.”

Duggan said the city for several years has delivered plywood for free on weekends to neighborhood groups that have volunteered to do board-ups. But “we weren’t making enough progress,” he said.

To ramp it up, the city determined it would need multiple crews deployed in each of Detroit’s seven City Council districts, and a few more teams for the city’s most concentrated areas. The city’s general fund is supporting the $9 million initiative. Board-up costs for the first year are expected to be around $4.8 million, the city said.

Detroit has already hired 22 people to staff the teams. Among them are 13 ex-offenders, Duggan said. Their work began several weeks ago, and 40 houses have been boarded up in the southwest Detroit neighborhood in recent days, officials said.

“When you talk to these folks about being able to come out of prison and go into a job where they are helping rebuild the community, it’s pretty inspirational,” he said. “Every time they go into the neighborhood they are welcomed by the neighbors who are glad to see them.”

Larry Hodge, 48, joined a crew in recent weeks after learning of the job from his parole officer. He was released from prison a few months ago after serving 23 years on a second-degree murder conviction, he said.

“I’m blessed every day of my life to be able to give back to those who I have took from,” said Hodge. “I’m trying to give back because I took so much.”

Board-up workers are paid $10 per hour to start and team leaders earn $13.50, said Brad Dick, director of the city’s General Services Department.

The targeted houses are being identified by registered Detroit block clubs working with the mayor’s Department of Neighborhoods. About 150 groups were asked to submit a list by Aug. 1. Once the houses on the list are completed, crews will then survey that zone to identify and address any other vacant houses that need boarding before they move to the next target area, officials said.

Duggan said about 4,000 houses are in the pipeline for board-ups over the next several months. The city expects to have 10 four-person crews operating across the city once the program is fully staffed, he added.

In addition to hiring workers, the city intends to contract with two community-based organizations to meet production demands, which is anticipated at up to 200 houses per week. The city is reviewing responses to a request for proposals. The partners will be selected in the coming weeks.