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Detroit Blight Census Leaves Fate of Isolated Residents Unspoken

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Firefighters Exit an Abandoned House in Detroit
Of properties in the report, 93 percent are described as neighborhood blight, residential and smaller commercial structures. About 70,000 are residential. Photographer: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

May 28 (Bloomberg) -- Detroit knows exactly how much blight infects its neighborhoods -- 84,641 vacant structures and lots. Now it faces the deeper challenge of transforming it into productive real estate.

The first block-by-block blight census in a major U.S. city, released yesterday, won’t be used to force out those in the bankrupt community’s sparsely populated neighborhoods. Instead, it will improve more viable ones, said Mayor Mike Duggan. He wants to sell cleared lots to neighbors for $100.

The blight count is a necessary first step.

“It’s almost like an alcoholic going into rehab,” said John George, founder of Motor City Blight Busters, a non-profit that promotes demolition and neighborhood revival. “You have to admit you have a problem and you have to understand the depth of that problem.”

Detroit has been confronting blight for decades. Sprawling over 139 square miles (360 square kilometers), Detroit’s population has shrunk to around 700,000 from a peak of 1.8 million during its 1950s heyday. Its streets are filled with empty houses and lots that once were home to workers and are reverting to nature.

The Detroit Blight Removal Task Force survey of nearly 380,000 parcels began last year as part of President Barack Obama’s pledge of $320 million to help Detroit recover. The group’s 330-page report estimates removing neighborhood blight will cost $850 million -- $2 billion, counting commercial and industrial sites larger than 25,000 square feet.

Uncharted Path

“Every neighborhood deserves a future,” said Linda Smith, co-chairwoman of the task force and executive director of U-Snap-Bac Community Development Corp., a non-profit housing assistance organization.

The report, however, doesn’t recommend what to do with lots once they’re cleared, or what life would be for residents left amid newly empty tracts. Urban gardens would be a good start, George said.

“If you can remove the negative energy -- the house, the blight, the tires -- and come back with some green space that actually produces instead of takes from, you have a net gain.”

The blight survey found 6,135 vacant lots that need immediate cleanup as a result of illegal dumping.

“Illegal dumpers would, hopefully, think twice before dumping on a garden or a flower bed,” George said.

Double Lot

The report also recommends changes in how vacant and blighted properties are seized by government and how owners are prodded to improve them. Duggan said the city owns as many as 15,000 parcels adjacent to occupied homes.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the day after we demo a house it’s deeded to a neighbor?” Duggan said to reporters after a two-hour report by the task force.

Yet it all costs money.

A plan to tear down 78,500 smaller structures in five years needs $394 million more than what’s available from the federal government and from state-appointed Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s proposal to spend $500 million over 10 years to eradicate blight.

“We’re going to talk to foundations, we’re going to be talking to the feds, we’re going to be reselling property, we’re going to be suing owners who can afford to demolish property,” Duggan said.

Fresh Plans

A non-profit project called Detroit Future City lays out how the city can be reshaped by concentrating population and commercial activity in some areas, and turning others into green spaces. That vision, created under former Mayor Dave Bing, will be incorporated in a new master plan, said John Mogk, a law professor specializing in urban policy at Wayne State University in Detroit who is working on it.

“First steps first; it’s important to get rid of blight,” Mogk said in a phone interview.

Mogk said it’s illegal to force residents in sparsely populated neighborhoods to move. Consolidating the dwindling population is key to providing better services at lower cost to fewer areas, he said.

“A number of these areas will continue to naturally lose population, and as they do, the city will take control of the land and attempt to assemble it and use it for other purposes,” Mogk said.

The quickest way to repopulate the city is encouraging new owners to buy existing homes, Mogk said.

One may be Orr, who said yesterday that he plans to bid on a house that reverted to the city and is on the auction block. Orr said he didn’t know whether it would be a second residence or whether he would fix it up and resell at cost.

“These are beautiful homes,” said Orr, who lives with his family near Washington. “You can’t find construction like this anymore -- the wood, the pine, the oak -- they’re great buildings.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Christoff in Detroit at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at Jeffrey Taylor

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