Blog: Blight Busting in Detroit

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Last week, the city of Detroit rolled out its plan to battle blight. Of course, the national media highlighted the traditional “bad news about Detroit” story that we’ve heard for 40 years, replete with the traditional photo of the Renaissance Center with a burned-out house in the foreground.

These reports cited the big, scary numbers:

  • $850 million to demolish most of the blight in the next five years (the city has access to about half of that)
  • 84,641 blighted or nearly blighted structures and vacant lots, half of which should be demolished and cleaned up immediately
  • 93 percent of the properties held by government need to be knocked down or cleaned up

Well, that sure sounded bad, but at last week’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan told the most uplifting blight story that I have ever heard. He talked about his goal to increase the city’s population by the end of his term — three years away. He talked about relighting the city’s streetlights, improved emergency response, and other issues. But the best part of his talk was about blight. He discussed his new neighborhood approach, focusing on one neighborhood at a time. He talked about not waiting three years to take the properties back for taxes and, most importantly, telling owners of blighted homes to either agree to fix the homes in six months or lose them.

Amazingly — to everyone, including Mayor Duggan — many of the owners have stepped up and begun making repairs. The city has established an auction site, which has gotten some national notice and, literally, thousands of people have shown up for the open houses. The city has sold several homes, sometimes for more than suburban homes. The mayor highlighted one neighborhood with nearly 50 homes slated for demolition. After using his new approach, that list was cut to nine.

Certainly, there are areas of the city that will need to be swept clean (and hopefully primed for redevelopment), and there are areas that won’t be addressed for a while. Even so, the mayor’s neighborhood program is a very uplifting breath of fresh air.

Arthur Siegal is a partner with Michigan-based Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss and a regular blogger for dbusiness.com.

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