More than two years after Detroit voters approved a $250 million bond plan to tear down and stabilize thousands of blighted homes, an advisory group created to oversee the use of those funds hasn’t held a single public meeting.
Meanwhile, the city has fallen short on its goal of securing 2,000 homes within the first two years and less than 51% of the workforce for the program are Detroiters, according to the compliance dashboard for Detroit’s Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department.
The Detroit Demolition Department confirmed that the group has met quarterly behind closed doors, noting that public sessions weren’t required since the Open Meetings Act does not apply to advisory boards. Even so, the city’s top attorney said this week that future meetings will be held publicly “in the interest of community engagement and transparency.”
“We were unaware that these advisory board meetings were not being publicly noticed,” Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr. told BridgeDetroit in a statement, stressing it can be argued that a board of this nature doesn’t meet the threshold of a public board under the act.
“As its name indicates, this board is purely advisory,” Mallett added. “It does not make policy, operational or budget decisions and any recommendations it makes are non-binding.”
The board, he said, was an avenue for the Demolition Department to receive consistent community feedback through community members who serve as members of this panel.
Following Bridge Detroit’s inquiry about the board’s meetings, the demolition department, in an emailed statement, wrote “we recognize this is an opportunity for more public engagement,” and going forward the department “will post notices of upcoming meetings and provide live streaming opportunities via social media.” The date of the next meeting is unclear.
The nature of the advisory board’s meetings follow concerns raised last summer over the level of transparency with the city’s spending under the bond program, who was getting the work and which neighborhoods were benefitting the least.
The advisory board – tasked with overseeing the use of bond funds and ensuring benchmarks are met – was a key provision in a plan negotiated between the City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration before the 2020 initiative, Proposal N, advanced to the ballot.
The agreement, known as the Neighborhood Improvement Plan (NIP), laid out eight strategic goals, including prioritizing salvageable homes, preference for Detroit-based companies and others committed to hiring 51% Detroiters as well as partnering with community development organizations for home rehabilitation and shifting oversight of demolition back under the city.
Under the NIP, the board’s role is to review and monitor goals and quarterly reports of the bond-funded demolition effort, and provide feedback to the administration and the council.
The City Council’s Legislative Policy Division drafted a set of standards two years ago in an attempt to guide the advisory board on how meetings would be conducted. LPD’s May 2021 recommendations, referred to the council’s Rules Committee, would have required the advisory group to post public notices, meet in public and set aside time for public comment. However, the committee did not meet for the remainder of that year and the resolution was never approved.
Agnes Hitchcock, a longtime activist in Detroit and outspoken opponent of the bond, said she’s not surprised the meetings had not been held publicly and argues that should invalidate the advisory board’s work.
“If they’ve had meetings and they didn’t post them and the community was not aware of them, anything they’ve proposed or anything of that nature, should be rescinded,” said Hitchcock, who formerly led a campaign opposing the bond.
The seven-member advisory board is composed of block club and neighborhood organization members; three appointed by the mayor, three appointed by the council, and one member who is jointly appointed.
The council appointed Frank Aldridge, Brigit Bauman and Thomas (“Tommie”) Obioha to serve on the board. Mallett said the mayor’s office appointed Kim Marble, Flor Hernandez, and Sandra Pickens. Hersanna Richards was jointly appointed by the council and mayor.
Sandra Pickens, a District 7 resident and president of the Littlefield Block Club Association, said she was asked to join due to her long-standing work with the block club.
Pickens said the demolition department has asked advisory board members for feedback on their communities and provided them with information about the work that the department is undertaking.
She told BridgeDetroit that she was unaware that the board will now be holding public meetings, but said she believes public input is warranted since the city is using the bond funds to improve the community.
“It’s important throughout any type of process or anything we have going on throughout our city,” Pickens said. “First of all, we’re taxpayers and you have a lot of residents that have lived in the city for years, so I feel it’s important to hear what we have to say about changes they’re taking care of in the city.”
BridgeDetroit was unable to reach several board members, another said they were unavailable for comment and Bauman said she resigned in December due to scheduling conflicts.
In 2021, the council’s Internal Operations committee interviewed Bauman, Aldridge, Obioha and Richards for the board appointments over several days.
During his interview, Obioha noted he was involved with several organizations and programs, including Sidewalk Detroit, Detroit Block Works, and Community Advocates for Detroit (CDAD). The native Detroitor and District 1resident, said during the interview that he planned to bring together community stakeholders, including residents, to ensure an “equitable implementation of Proposal N.”
Richards, a resident of District 5, is a legislative associate for Michigan Municipal League, according to her LinkedIn profile. During her interview, she spoke about her experience as a renter in Detroit and the challenges she faced in finding a move-in-ready home to purchase.
Alridge lives in District 3 and is president of the East Outer Drive Block Club Association and Marble is a resident of District 4.
Stabilization timeline and hiring targets
Duggan’s administration touted Proposal N as an effort that would prioritize home rehabilitation over demolitions. Without the funds, city officials have said, Detroit was positioned to lose about 1,000 salvageable homes each year to weather, arson, and vandalism.
Based on the city’s data for completed Proposal N demolitions and stabilizations, for every home stabilized, two homes have been demolished since the city began spending the bond proceeds.
Before Proposal N was approved, the city estimated 2,000 homes would be sold within the first year and the remaining 6,000 blighted properties being addressed under the bond would be secured and resold over the next four years. Two years after Proposal N was implemented, the city’s demolition dashboard indicates 1,373 homes have been secured for future sale and 3,409 have been demolished.
A spokesperson for the Detroit Land Bank Authority confirmed in an email that the land bank has sold 961 of the homes stabilized using the bond funds and 88 other homes are listed for sale on its website.
John Roach, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said the land bank has been able to sell homes at such a rapid pace that the city has not had to stabilize as many properties. Today, the city estimates Proposal N bond funds will be used to board up and secure about 4,000 of the 6,000 salvageable homes originally targeted for stabilization. That process involves removing trash, debris, and overgrowth from the interior and exterior and securing windows and doors with clear boards.
The demolition department said in an email that properties are stabilized depending on when the land bank releases them from its inventory as well as procuring contractors for the work. Although the time frame varies, a spokesperson for the department said they estimate the process takes about 18 weeks.
When the city put Proposal N before voters in November 2020, it committed to awarding more than half of all contracts for the work to Detroit companies and that residents would get priority for purchasing salvaged homes.
The goal of contracting vendors that employ Detroiters to work on Proposal N contracts has fallen below the 51% threshold to 47%, according to the CRIO dashboard. Contractors are fined when they don’t meet the 51% threshold and funds accrued are deposited into the Workforce Training Fund. To date, eight contractors have paid $96,269.50 in workforce fines.
According to the Neighborhood Improvement Plan resolution passed by the council in September 2020, the administration is responsible for implementing the programs and various actions that were outlined. The council is responsible for overseeing the city’s progress toward the eight stated goals.
BridgeDetroit reached out to multiple council members but did not receive a response by the time this story was published.
The land bank’s Rehabbed and Ready and Building Blocks programs were mentioned in the NIP as opportunities for Detroiters to rehabilitate homes stabilized with bond funds. The land band noted in an email that Rehabbed and Ready is ongoing and Building Blocks will re-launch this year after a pandemic-related pause. Rehabbed and Ready launched in 2015 through a partnership with the city, land bank and Quicken Loans (now Rocket Companies). The DLBA has six homes listed on its website under the program. All but two properties are ready for rehabilitation. The remaining houses have either received offers or are under contract.