Detroit raises safety in residential razings, empowers neighbors to report contractors

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Andre Bey wasn’t surprised a couple of weeks ago to see a blighted house being torn down directly across the street in his northwest Detroit neighborhood, because the city is conducting a record-setting number of residential demolitions.

But this time, he knew it was coming and understood how to protect his family. The city in May rolled out regulations for its contractors, hired watchdogs to monitor demolitions and mounted an aggressive campaign to inform residents how to guard against dust and debris that pose potential health risks.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen something like this,” said Bey, 44, as he stood in front of his Fielding Street home, pointing out large, yellow notices on nearby houses slated for leveling, and an informational door hanger left at his home.

“I’m glad they notified us. It’s a step that makes it a little bit safer than it was.”

Detroit’s strategy that urges residents to keep watch and hold contractors accountable is praised as a model for other cities by federal environmental officials, who participated on a city task force with the state Department of Environmental Quality and private contractors.

“Having completed a major overhaul of the demolition process, Detroit’s new demolition practices balance speed, cost and environmental performance,” the EPA said in a statement. “These practices may be applicable to other communities seeking to reduce the environmental impact of demolitions, comply with applicable environmental regulations, and ultimately leave sites better positioned for future reuse.”

The plan to minimize respiratory and other health problems comes as the city ramps up to about 200 demolitions per week in one of the largest-scale efforts in the country’s history. It is an 18 percent increase from the 170 teardowns the city averaged in 2013. Detroit is on pace to demolish more than 3,000 homes by year’s end, city officials said.

The task force took the rare step of getting regulators involved in the planning stages and examined demolition procedures in Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago and Cleveland to create its own set of regulations to protect the health of residents, said Building Authority Director David Manardo. The EPA said Detroit’s anti-blight effort presents “an unprecedented challenge.”

“It’s the single largest undertaking of residential demolition in the history of the country,” Manardo said. “We take this very seriously.”

The residential demolitions are funded in large part with $52 million in federal “Hardest Hit” money allocated for anti-blight efforts in six target areas. Officials say 70 percent of the funds must be spent by October to meet a state deadline. The land bank must spend all of the money by April 30.

The volume of demolitions prompted the city to adopt new dust suppression strategies to minimize respiratory problems.

It is tracking elevated blood-lead levels in children and respiratory hospitalizations “to make sure our precautions are enough,” said Regina Royan, an epidemiologist in the city’s Department of Health and Wellness Promotion.

Detroit’s asthma hospitalization rate is three times higher and death rate is twice as high as Michigan’s, according to a health department report issued this spring. City statistics also show 14.1 percent of Detroit adults have asthma, compared with 10.2 percent of adults in the rest of Michigan.

Childhood lead poisoning has been a health concern in Detroit for generations. In 2012, 8.5 percent of Detroit children had a blood-lead level exceeding the threshold at which the Centers for Disease Control recommends treatment.

“The volume and age of Detroit’s housing stock make it a unique challenge in the elimination of childhood lead poisoning; 62.2 percent of homes in Detroit were built prior to 1950 and are likely to contain lead paint and dust that would be disturbed during demolition,” the Health Department report said.

Officials say it is too early to tell whether the demolitions are exacerbating the level of health complaints. The city will continue assessing short-term risk and project longer-term health benefits from the anti-blight effort, Royan said.

“Whenever you do a large-scale effort like this, there’s always an extra concern over the quality of life of residents, particularly because we are doing this in neighborhoods that have a dense population,” she said.

Among its efforts, Detroit hired four field liaisons to keep tabs on contractors and respond to resident concerns reported to the land bank’s new call center, 844-DET-DEMO. Manardo said the liaisons are unique to Detroit and empowered to stop work if a contractor is not adhering to specifications.

Before this, “nobody watched” how demolitions were done, said Brian Farkas, director of special projects for Detroit’s Building Authority.

John Martin, a liaison assigned to the city’s northwest side, said he is responding to about 30 calls a day from residents and said there have been “some incidences” where contractors haven’t been in compliance.

Detroit has changed its penalties for contractors who violate the rules. Instead of imposing financial fines, the city can pull the job from the contractor and bar it from bidding on additional projects for three months.

“You can have all of the regulations you want. If you are not enforcing them, then the rules become relaxed in the field,” Farkas said. “If your job site is getting (shut) down consistently, it’s going to be a big issue for you.”

Detroit-based Homrich is a primary contractor for Detroit’s demolition projects.

“We’ve embraced the program, and it’s helped us out a lot,” said Anthony Abela, a project manager for Homrich.

The city is also requiring demolition teams to mist water on structures as they are torn down and spray down debris as it is loaded onto trucks for disposal to reduce dust.

Health concerns inadvertently can take a back seat while the city is in bankruptcy, said Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who helped develop the plan.

“We want to make sure,” she said, “that residents are informed and safe.”

Tips for residents

Do’s and don’ts if you live by demolition projects:

■Stay inside with doors and windows closed during demolition.

■Don’t let children play on or near the site.

■Do not remove or touch debris.

■Clean all toys and tools and bring them indoors.

■Clean window sills, floors and other surfaces where dust collects with warm, soapy water and paper towels.

Source: City of Detroit Department of Health and Wellness Promotion