On Tuesday, the Obama-mandated Detroit Blight Removal Task Force presented its report and recommendations for the city that has become a model of abandonment and urban blight. Over the course of December and January, the task force sent residents throughout the city to survey all 380,000 “land parcels” (residential properties, commercial properties, and vacant lots) and found that 84,641 fit the standard for blight.
Yeah, that didn’t exactly come as a shock.
The city has come to be defined by its “ruin porn” image: after losing 61 percent of its population between 1950 and 2010, and the flight of auto manufacturing out of town, Detroit is the nation’s most famous ghost town. It also has the highest unemployment rate of all cities in the US, at 23.1 percent.
So why does the task force report focus almost entirely on the cost of razing and demolishing the blighted properties? Wouldn’t it make more sense to fix them up and try to attract residents?
A slew of Detroit community groups are doing just that. And some of them think that just demolishing all the old structures isn’t really going to work.
“Every mayor says they’re going to knock down the blight. But I feel like we’re not stopping blight in the first place. It keeps cropping up- like a whack-a-mole game,” said Sarah Cox, vice president of Write a House, a non-profit that buys homes at foreclosure auctions, fixes them up, and gives them away — permanently and without cost — to writers.
Write a House is one of several community projects invested in making some of Detroit’s blighted properties habitable again while attracting artists to the city.
Another is Powerhouse Productions, a group that buys foreclosed homes and turns them into artist residencies as well as building sculpture parks and skate parks.
“What Write a House is trying to do is not only salvage those houses but create community and put people in a very interesting neighborhood. I think that’s the challenge right now. A lot of these houses are very easy to acquire. The problem is renovating it,” said Cox.
“There’s federal money for blight removal but there isn’t federal money for renovation,” Cox told VICE News, “From a policy standpoint, maybe federal dollars are pushing them toward blight removal.”
To be fair, Detroit’s newest mayor (and, incidentally, its first white mayor since the early 70’s) has expressed a desire to focus more on renovation than on mass bulldozing.
In April, Mayor Mike Duggan announced Building Detroit, a partnership with the Detroit Land Bank Authority that auctions off abandoned and foreclosed homes only to people who are actually going to live in them — a radical move in a city where speculators snatch up entire blocks of houses at $500 bids.
VICE News spoke with Alex Alsup, chief product officer at Detroit’s Loveland Technologies, who helped worked on the task force surveys. Loveland designed an app for the surveyors called Blexting — a combination of blight and texting — that allowed them to quickly communicate intelligence about crumbling properties.
The startup also created the site Why Don’t We Own This, an incredibly detailed map of every single land parcel in Detroit that recently began expanding to other cities too.
A quick glance at the site’s Poletown neighborhood map showed that out of 6,069 total properties, over 2,000 were city-owned. And that’s not counting the ones that have yet to complete tax foreclosure.
“It’s actually tax foreclosures that are the biggest problem in Detroit,” Alsup told VICE News. “After three years of not paying their taxes, the properties are foreclosed and taken possession of by the county. Every year you have these 20,000 properties going into the auction process. Often those go to speculators, who hold the land until they think someone will want to buy it from them.”
Alsup calls it “tax distress” rather than tax delinquency or evasion: “Because this is just a really bad situation for everybody, it’s not the fault of the owner that they have exorbitant property taxes for houses that are not really worth it. That’s the real engine that has driven the deteriorating property for the last six or seven years.”
East side resident Karen Chava-Knox told VICE News she also believed property taxes and banks were a large reason for the city’s decline. Chava-Knox is president of Eden Gardens Block Club, which transformed an empty lot near the airport into a community farm.
“It doesn’t make sense to have such high property taxes that people can’t pay them. Between the banks and the taxes, that’s the reason the city looks the way that it does,” said Chava-Knox,” We have banks that weren’t held accountable for the way people’s interest rate went up overnight and caused foreclosure. Then the house is vacant, then it gets stripped, then it’s sitting there.”
“At some point, you have to say this doesn’t make sense. If the city does not rethink what it is doing with the taxes, and doesn’t make banks accountable, it won’t turn around. Because they’re still doing it,” Chava-Knox said.
Chava-Knox described where she lives as “a forgotten area” and said that the city seems to put revitalization efforts toward only downtown and the midtown district. Eden Gardens was created to combat what she said is a food desert: “Our goal is to provide healthy food for the community and to teach our children entrepreneurship.”
That’s a vital skill in a city with few available jobs.
Detroit, a city with an 83 percent black population, is home to many community gardens and home beautifying projects launched by black community activists. D-Town Farm, founded by self-professed anti-capitalist Malik Yakini, now sits on two acres of city parkland, but it originated in an empty lot in a food desert much like the one surrounding Eden Gardens.
According to the website of Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which runs D-Town Farm as well as a food co-op, most Detroit residents don’t live within one mile of a grocery store.
Now, the Eden Gardens Block Club is expanding its efforts by boarding up the abandoned homes in the neighborhood. But the club relies on private grants and, like Write a House, hasn’t received any funding from the city.
Maybe the city that’s projected to spend billions on demolition could give some of that money to the residents who are already desperately trying to fix up abandoned properties.
“When the houses are boarded up, they look so much better,” Chava-Knox told VICE News, “We plant flowers, clean the area, and board up the house so it looks attractive. That way when people come to look at the house, they know at least they are in an area where people care. They’ll be in a community that is strong and trying to rebuild and make it better.”
Follow Mary Emily O’Hara on Twitter: @maryemilyohara