Detroit's Proposal N blight bond heads toward passage

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
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Detroit — As the city's $250 million bond proposal headed toward passage Wednesday, Mayor Mike Duggan said he knew it would pass by "a big margin."

With 503 of 637 precincts reporting, the 30-year bond issue — Proposal N, as in neighborhoods — was receiving a 70.3% "yes" vote Wednesday evening.

Within weeks, the Duggan administration intends to launch a five-year plan to tear down and rehabilitate thousands of blighted homes, he said during a noon press conference.

"We came together and we found the same thing we've always found, which is enormous support for the people of this city to vote by more than a 70% margin," Duggan said. "It's an enormous vote of confidence in the administration and we're going to go to work."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

They'll start with securing homes headed for renovation and tearing down blighted homes that sit between two occupied homes, Duggan said, "to have the maximum impact on the folks in this town who go to sleep every night worrying that the house next door is going to catch fire and spread to them."

A divided Detroit City Council voted 5-4 in July to put the controversial measure before voters that would dedicate $160 million toward razing 8,000 blighted houses and $90 million for renovating 8,000 others that are vacant but structurally sound. The city also committed to goals of awarding more than half of all contracts associated with the work to Detroit companies and giving residents first dibs on salvaged homes. 

The city, faced with looming pension obligations coming due in 2024 and the recent reallocation of blight dollars to combat a pandemic-induced $410 million shortfall in the current and last fiscal budget, doesn't have dollars to spare, said Detroit's Chief Financial Officer Dave Massaron.

Massaron previously noted if the market holds, Detroit will aim to borrow a large part of the blight bond funding early to take advantage of historically low rates.

Debris is seen at a blighted home at 8626 Warwick.

Detroit's general fund resources for blight, he said, are "extremely limited" and officials adopted a four-year financial plan without any funds for the demolition department in the 2022 fiscal year.

The bond issue has proven to be controversial, as opponents from the Call 'Em Out Coalition urged voters to reject the plan, arguing that city officials can't be trusted to handle taxpayer dollars.

Agnes Hitchcock, who headed up opposition to the plan for the Call 'Em out Coalition, said it’s disappointing that the coalition wasn’t able to reach out and explain their worries to as many people as the organized group in favor of the plan did.

"We will fully look at every penny that comes in from that $250 million bond. Where it’s spent and who gets it. All the jobs that he promised for Detroit, all the contracts that he promised for Detroit," Hitchcock said. "We fully intend to hold his feet to the fire, hold him to every promise that he’s made."

Hitchcock, who has cited a lack of trust in government handling of taxpayer money, said she will closely track how the Duggan administration’s operation is run.

Hitchcock has also pointed to a Detroit News investigation that revealed homeowners had been overtaxed by more than $600 million after Detroit failed to accurately bring down property values in the years following the Great Recession.

Duggan and a group of Detroit City Council members recently unveiled a resolution aimed at giving some relief to residents potentially impacted through priority options for affordable housing, discounted purchases of land bank homes and job training.

Hitchcock said the coalition will work to ensure people are made whole.

“He’s not off the hook for that $600 million taken from taxpayers in the city of Detroit,” she said. “We expect him to put as much effort into making people whole in Detroit for the over taxation as he did on passing that Proposal N bond.”

Arthur Jemison, Detroit's group executive of Planning, Housing and Development, previously told The News the plan would mean rehabilitation and demolition work from border to border.

Rehab attention will immediately be focused on places like Maple Ridge and Osborn area in northeast Detroit, greater Conner Creek, State Fair Avenue north to Eight Mile, and a section of the west side near Nardin Park and Brightmoor.

Duggan touted Detroit City Council, which will have oversight over the program, and LaJuan Counts, head of Detroit's Demolition Department.

"Anytime you're doing 16,000, different projects you're going to have some things go wrong, but LaJuan managed to board up 30,000 houses," Duggan said. "We will move on and I just want the people in the city to know that deeply appreciate the support." 

"I knew it was going to be a big margin," he said, also thanking 5,000 people who aided in Election Day tabulations.

Detroiters weigh in

Nicole Small, the City Charter Commission’s vice chairwoman, claims there were many residents who submitted their ballots for the bond without knowledge of details.

"The mayor put a lot of money into it and manipulated Detroiters into thinking that their taxes wouldn’t be impacted, but that it would help sustain the community," said Small, who voted against the bond.

"No one expected this to be fair and transparent, but we’ll wait and see."

Small said among the coalitions that opposed the bond, they’ve assembled a plan to "make sure we monitor and hold this administration to account."

Marion Stephens, president of the LaSalle Block Club for more than 30 years, voted for the bond despite her neighbors advocating to vote against it. She said in the past three years, the block has improved to become stable and now it’s time for surrounding blocks to follow suit.

“My neighbors feel that down the road the city will decide they can’t afford to pay the bond and they’ll raise our taxes, but realistically, it wouldn’t go up, it just won’t go down. I can deal with that because I have for years now,” said Stephens, 86. “If it goes through and does what it’s supposed to do, it’ll work."

It’s not without fault, she says. In recent years, Stephens has spent thousands tearing down two blighted homes in the neighborhood that shouldn’t have been listed for sale.

“They were on the demo list and next thing I knew it was for sale by the Detroit Land Bank,” she said. “This is a nice neighborhood and I was fearful that someone would buy it and just let it sit, so I paid $9,000 to buy the land and have the houses torn down."

Among those most vocally in support of the bond program were council members Roy McCalister, Andre Spivey, Janee Ayers, Scott Benson and Gabe Leland.  

McCalister, who said the council fought for more oversight to gain the public's trust, said things won't be run as they used to be.

Had Proposal N failed, he said, homes that could be revitalized or knocked down would have weathered the storm for another year, and by then, "It might be to the point where we're tearing down more houses than we can save."

Benson said Proposal N passage placed Detroit squarely on the path to promise and prosperity.

"Parents can feel more confident about the safety of their children and seniors can feel safe in their homes again. Young people can move back to the city into newly rehabbed homes to raise their families," Benson said.

In her five years on the council, Ayers said the top concern at community meetings consistently regards blight in neighborhoods. 

"Reducing blight not only improves the aesthetics of our city, but leads to a reduction in crime and an increase in value for our neighborhoods," Ayers said. "As chair of the budget committee, I am committed to diligent oversight of the implementation of this proposal and look forward to its positive impact on our city."

Hitchcock said she’s hopeful that the bond plan will truly clean up neighborhoods.

“I really hope that he succeeds at what he said he was going to do,” she said. “It’s not for him. It’s for the benefit of the people that he keeps his promises.”

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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