Mayor Mike Duggan plans to wipe out residential blight in Detroit by the end of his third term, but it’s a lofty goal that some say he’s unlikely to achieve.
The blight fight has been a recurring theme in Duggan’s tenure and he made the global following of Detroit’s “decay and ruin” and a dozen iconic commercial eyesores the focal point of his annual State of the City address last week.
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Duggan ticked off rehabilitation projects underway at the former Michigan Central Depot and state fairgrounds and plans to address the defunct Packard Plant. He noted progress in the neighborhoods, too – 23,000 vacant houses have come down since 2014. But some elected leaders, residents and scholars are skeptical that the city’s blight problems can truly be eradicated without more meaningful efforts to address its systemic causes.
Duggan said in his ninth annual speech that the city is two-thirds of the way through knocking down its abandoned housing stock. Most of that work was completed with $265 million in federal Hardest Hit dollars and a controversial demolition bond is funding the removal or rehabilitation of thousands more.
“I expect in the next four years that we are going to either renovate or demolish every abandoned house,” Duggan said last week, “so that no child in the city ever grows up on a block where they have to walk past blight and feel bad about their neighborhood.”
Glenda Price, who served on a Blight Removal Task Force created in 2013 to catalog Detroit’s housing stock, said she applauds the mayor’s commitment, but said challenges that perpetuate blight – tax foreclosure, underemployment and educational barriers – aren’t getting attention fast enough.
“People will continue to abandon homes they cannot afford. Neighborhoods will continue to decline with those abandoned homes if we don’t address education, employment and social issues,” said Price, a 22-year resident of Palmer Woods. “It’s all very complicated and mixed together.”
The blight task force, chaired by billionaire Dan Gilbert, estimated in 2014 that more than 80,000 properties were blighted or vacant. The cost to tear them down was pegged at $850 million.
The group’s study estimated just over 40,000 structures were beyond repair. Another 38,000 had been vacant and were at risk of becoming blighted.
Price told BridgeDetroit the report had a “pie-in-the-sky notion that we could indeed end blight” and it is a goal worth pursuing.
“At the same time, I believe that we really are going to be in a constant state of trying to get ahead of it and not moving forward if we don’t address the other issues simultaneously,” Price said. “From my perspective, we are standing still.”
‘Poster child’ for foreclosure
Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield said the mayor’s goal can be met, but she stressed the need to eliminate the “pipeline” to blight, chiefly tax foreclosure.
“It’s widely known that foreclosures have decimated urban communities across the nation and Detroit, unfortunately, has been the poster child for this destructive pattern,” Sheffield said.
“When homes are foreclosed upon typically within a week or two of being vacant they are stripped and become open to the elements,” she said. “Ultimately, the homes, more often than not, end up on the demolition list costing the city money to demolish and resulting in the loss of revenue related to property taxes and state and federal funding due to population loss.”
As of March 10, 5,621 owner-occupied properties and 9,555 non-owner-occupied properties, such as rentals, were subject to foreclosure, according to the Wayne County Treasurer’s office. The majority are in Detroit. Treasurer Eric Sabree said he expects those numbers to “drop drastically” because of payment plans and federal funding that taxpayers might qualify for.
John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, held up the city’s Homeowners Property Exemption, or HOPE, program. He said 12,000 households have received exemptions and most at 100%.
In January 2020, a Detroit News investigation found Detroit homeowners had been overtaxed by at least $600 million between 2010 and 2016 after the city failed to accurately bring down property values in the years following the recession.
The city later completed a state-ordered reappraisal of all residential properties. Even so, thousands of Detroiters faced foreclosure over back taxes.
The mayor has acknowledged the past issues but said the gap between home prices and assessments was largely resolved in 2014 when he took office and dropped assessments by more than 20%.
Sheffield has aligned with the Coalition for Property Tax Justice to press the city’s administration on a plan to aid residents who were potentially overtaxed. Detroit’s former City Council rejected a resolution calling for preferences in hiring and home-buying discounts, saying it didn’t go far enough.
The council president has repeatedly called for a state task force “to look at how we got here.”
‘In a deep hole’
Duggan, in announcing his bid for a third term, championed a $50 million philanthropic funding commitment for an effort coined the “People Plan,” which encompasses a series of programs for gun violence reduction, high school completion and skills training courses and door-to-door support services.
Duggan last week touted a $100 million scholarship fund to train more adult Detroiters for the workforce, noting that there are 13,000 open positions in the city.
“I don’t care if you’re 25 or 45 or 65, this is a $100 million scholarship fund for you,” Duggan said of the federal COVID-19 relief aid he said will build on initiatives offered through his Detroit at Work job training program.
Many residents with talent, he said, haven’t had access to the education or training to excel in the workforce. The scholarships are available for the next three years, he said.
“This is your college tuition because you stayed in the city of Detroit, because you are still here,” he said. “When I see that 13,000 number, I want to see 13,000 Detroiters filling those jobs.”
Workforce development programs are necessary, said Price, a former president of Marygrove College, but if people continue to be underemployed and unemployed “we will continue to stand still,” she said.
Vow to erase blight
The vow to erase the city’s blight is consistent from the mayor. He first laid out a vision for the bond proposal during a 2019 keynote speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference. The goal, at that time, of freeing the city of residential blight by the close of 2024 hinged on the City Council’s approval of the ballot measure.
Duggan aimed to put his plan before voters in the spring of 2020. But the concept initially was turned down by the council amid objections from residents, activists, clergy and lawmakers.
The prospect arose at the tail end of the city’s federally funded program, which was marked with controversy over cost and bidding concerns that prompted federal, state and city investigations.
A divided council voted to place the $250 million bond coined Proposal N, as in neighborhoods, on the November 2020 ballot. The city also adopted a set of guarantees for city-based hiring for demolition work and preference for residents in acquiring the renovated houses. The measure was approved by 71% of Detroit voters.
“Under Proposal N, our priority is removing vacant houses next to occupied houses,” Duggan reiterated Wednesday. “We’re going to every block and if you’re in a house and there’s an abandoned house next to you that’s our priority to take down so that you can go to sleep at night not worrying the vacant house next to you is going to catch fire and spread to your house.”
The Detroit Land Bank Authority has control of the majority of the city’s vacant parcels. It’s inventory includes 76,369 properties and most – 62,822 – are vacant lots. Another 13,547 are structures.
Tammy Daniels, interim executive director of the land bank, said the city has 5,437 residential properties in its demolition pipeline for the next couple of years and the land bank has 5,752 other homes that are salvageable.
“We will have gone through the entire inventory and have listed all that are for sale by the end of October 2023,” she said.
Daniels said the city’s demolition department plans to scale up to 100 teardowns each week this spring, up from about 50 per week currently.
“It is entirely reasonable that within the next four years the demolition of houses that are publicly owned will be down and the salvaged houses we own will be in the hands of residents that will be living in those homes and fixing them up,” she said.
Margaret Dewar, a professor in urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College, said an end to residential blight would be welcome for the city.
“But more blight is being produced all the time,” she said. “Even if everything that was now blighted was repaired, rehabbed or demoed, then there’d be more. It’s kind of a moving target, as we’ve seen with the past demolitions.”
Donna Givens, president of the Eastside Community Network, noted blight is a consequence of disinvestment and “people don’t have money to invest.”
“Until we stop the disinvestment by outside people coming in and just using predatory practices to extract as much wealth from these homes as possible, we’re going to have blight,” she said.
“You cannot demolish your way into redevelopment,” Givens said. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so what are we doing to prevent blight? What are we doing to prevent the things that caused the blight we see in the city?”
Daniels does not dismiss long-standing issues that have contributed to the problem, noting there’s been a “mass exodus of people looking for a better life and employment for their families.”
But Detroit’s ongoing focus on affordable housing and jobs training, she said, give her hope.
“The mayor’s speech about getting Detroiters employed and working, to me, is a huge part of the problem that has led to blight,” Daniels said. “The amount of money and energy we’re pouring into employing Detroiters … I have never heard anything like that. It’s wonderful we’re using the money we got from the federal government in such creative and dynamic ways that will have such a profound impact for residents and across city neighborhoods.”
Detroit’s home repair crisis
Some land bank home-buying programs have provided stability to residents of the majority-renter city, said Alyssa Strickland, a spokeswoman for the authority.
About 61% of the individuals who purchase land bank homes are renters at the time of purchase, “reversing that trend,” she said. Additionally, 72% of buyers are Black and from Detroit, according to land bank data.
Since spring 2014, the land bank has sold more than 15,000 homes and 7,500 of them are under renovation.
Dewar noted it’s historically been tough for low-income Detroiters to get enough money to tend to their home maintenance needs.
“The repair resources are few in and far between in the city,” said Dewar, noting geography also plays a role in whether a resident will qualify for a loan or can maintain the value of a property.
University of Michigan Poverty Solutions last fall released a report that found nearly 38,000 households in Detroit – or more than 1 in 7 occupied homes – faced major electrical or heating problems or lacked hot or running water in the year prior, according to a representative survey of Detroiters conducted by U-M’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study.
Detroit’s administration is working to bolster assistance. Last fall, Duggan’s office announced Renew Detroit, a $30 million effort paid for through the American Rescue Act Plan to cover home repairs for 1,500 low-income seniors and residents with disabilities.
Sheffield, who has argued for years during budget deliberations to boost home repair grant allocations, said she’s been “unrelenting” in her fight to address that quality of life issue.
Home repair funding is “a vehicle for generational wealth creation for Detroiters,” she said, and “remains a major source of blight and neighborhood decay.”
Brad Dick, the city’s group executive of services and infrastructure, said the city has added dozens of building inspectors to further curb blight. He said overgrown lots are being cut more frequently than they were in the past, hundreds of parks are renovated and alleyways are being cleared.
“I know we have a lot more work to do. I get it,” Dick said. “But as we keep layering things on, it’s working.”