Calabrese: Be wary of demolition idea

Dan Calabrese

Anyone who has driven around Detroit lately — and seen the vacant lots where there were once rotting, abandoned houses — can appreciate the aggressive pace of demolition Mayor Mike Duggan has pursued. I, for one, don’t even mind that the cost-per-home has increased from the $10,000 we saw under Dave Bing to the $16,000 Duggan is paying.

Demolishing abandoned homes at a snail’s pace — which is what Bing was doing — is not going to position Detroit for the revival it needs. If paying bigger money to more capable contractors is the way to accelerate the process (within reason, of course), it’s money well spent.

So it’s natural that the city is considering ways to further accelerate the process, and that makes talk of an internal demolition department a very unsurprising idea. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea.

Duggan has floated the idea of an internal department that might raze 10 houses a week, adding to the 50 the contractors are doing right now — which will increase to as many as 125 when the weather gets better. That means the city, which previously had a demolition department and disbanded it — would have to once again acquire equipment for the task, or perhaps arrange some sort of leasing/sharing deal with its contractors.

Crucially, as with any in-house department, it also means adding overhead to the city budget that you don’t have to deal with when you contract work out.

Is an additional 10 houses a week (or presumably 520 a year) worth that? And even if you think so, is that the best way to achieve it? The contractors might be charging more per home than it would cost the city to do it, but the contractors already have the capacity and the personnel to do the job. Adding 10 homes per week to the contractors’ load would certainly add to the city’s costs, but it would also be something they could pull back on if funds became scarce or some mitigating factor argued for a slowdown.

If you’ve got a department with a payroll, you’ve got to keep them productive all the time simply to justify the cost.

The longer-term concern, of course, is a fixed cost that grows over time and becomes less a benefit than a burden. Detroit should have learned from its bankruptcy that fixed costs are part of the formula that leads to disaster — especially since it would presumably be a goal to put that department out of business some day. Government departments don’t like to go out of business, and they’re pretty good at finding ways to survive even after they’ve long outlived their usefulness. They make allies on the City Council. They find new things to do that were not part of their original mission. They also learn to compete with outside contractors rather than compliment them, no matter what the original plan was.

They will not die.

At least not easily, and that’s something to think about before the city goes and creates another one when there are already perfectly capable contractors on the job. Demolition is costing a lot, but we’re getting somewhere for the first time in a long time. The desire to go even faster is understandable, but creating a new city department is probably not the best way to achieve that.

Dan Calabrese is a freelance writer based in Royal Oak.