Detroit officials eye expansion of blight program

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Detroit — A blight removal blitz in a neighborhood east of the former state fairgrounds this year will expand to other parts of the city, a Detroit official said Monday.

"We're coming to every part of the city," said Brian Farkas, director of special projects for the Detroit Building Authority. "This is the first area and we're expanding it."

Debris from a property on Derby Street in Detroit is moved into a dumpster, Monday.  A blight removal program taking place in the neighborhood has dramatically increased the number of bulldozed abandoned homes.

Farkas' remarks come a day before city officials are expected to ask Detroit's City Council to approve a proposed 30-year, $250 million bond issue on the ballot next spring. The bond pitched by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan would help wipe out the city's blight by mid-2025. 

MoreDuggan pitching $250M bond issue to wipe out blight by 2025

The plan comes as the last of $265 million in federal dollars to raze blighted homes in Detroit winds down. The city has nearly 19,000 more vacant houses to demolish or restore.

Representatives from the Detroit Building Authority and police department assemble for a press conference to discuss a blight removal program taking place in the neighborhood just east of the state fairgrounds in Detroit, Monday.

Farkas said bond approval by voters will be significant. "Hopefully, this bond will go through (the City Council) tomorrow."

In the meantime, the building authority plans to extend its project area from south and east to Interstate 75, he said.

The city has demolished about 86 blighted structures in the area this year, Farkas said. That compares with eight last year, one in 2017, two in 2016, five in 2015 and four in 2014. 

The area near the former state fairgrounds — between West Eight Mile and West State Fair, and Andover and Fayette streets — was targeted because it is among those in the city with the highest concentration of blight and crime, according to officials.

"You're seeing more and more studies on the effect of demolition of blight on crime," Farkas said. "And this is us taking the first real concrete action towards that."

DeShaune Sims, commander of the Detroit Police Department's 12th Precinct, said residents in the area welcome the city's blight removal effort, a product of working with the Detroit Police Department and Councilman Roy McAlister, who represents the district.

"A lot of residents of this area told us they thought the city forgot about them," she said. "They're excited about the teardowns. They're excited to see what's going to happen after."

Julius Gailliard Jr. stands in front of his home on Derby in Detroit, Monday.

Julius Gailliard Jr., 63, is among them. He has lived on Derby Street for the last three years, next to a vacant shell of a house with scars from a fire. The house has a large dead tree in its front yard.

"It's called horrific when you live next to a house like this," he said Monday. "Getting rid of them is a wonderful change."

Shapo Georgis, 57, has lived on Derby Street since 1979 and owns four houses on the block.

"The big concern is safety when it comes to these vacant houses," he said.

Sims said it's too soon to know if the removal of vacant homes, prime locations for narcotic sales, prostitution and shootings, has resulted in a reduction of crime.

"But we expect to see a decrease in crime overall," she said. "I think it'll take six to 12 months to say for sure, but I think it will. When you reduce the number of homes that are blighted in a community, it lessens the opportunity for criminals to have a location to hide and do their work."

Debris from a property on Derby in Detroit is moved into a dumpster Monday.

Farkas said he expects 98% of the blighted properties in the area to be demolished by the end of the year.

"Paperwork is the hardest part," Farkas said. "Once that's done, we can take a house down in about 30 minutes and we like to have it cleaned up within 30 days."

Most of the demolition has been paid for through the federal Hardest Hit Program; about $1.5 million is being covered by city funds, Farkas said. 

He said empty lots that remain and that are owned by the city's Land Bank will be eligible for sale as a side lot for next door neighbors.

Since spring 2014, Detroit has demolished more than 19,000 structures. Of those, more than 12,000 have come down with federal dollars, according to the city's Land Bank.

Detroit's demolition program has been the focus of several state and local reviews and a federal criminal probe after concerns were raised in 2015 over rising costs and bidding practices. 

In April, a federal investigation secured guilty pleas from two men over bid rigging as part of a lengthy criminal investigation into the demolition program. 

In addition, a federal watchdog is auditing the demolition work in Detroit and Michigan for the risk of contaminated soil. The U.S. Department of Justice has signaled it doesn't expect to bring additional charges against public officials for wrongdoing over blight funding.