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Beating Blight

Allison Farrand/Daily
An abandoned home sits next to a vacant lot on Ashland St. in Detroit's Jefferson-Mack neighborhood. Buy this photo

By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published July 2, 2014

This is a piece for the Detroit Beat, a new blog at the Daily. Look for the Detroit Beat link on our website in the fall.

DETROIT — Like most of the places on Lyndon Street, Judy Sackett’s house is small, white and boxy. Her lawn is cut, the yard filled with flowering shrubs. A wooden bench sits under a large tree.

But the story of Lyndon Street is complicated. The house next door is vacant. Plenty of structures are visibly marked by blight —their roofs caved in, shells scarred by fire. A block over sits a tract of empty land so vast that a family uses it to ride their off-terrain vehicles. Some of the residents mow the grass in the vacant lots near their homes just to keep their stretch of street looking okay.

Detroit’s blight problem is no secret. But for years, community organizations and city administrations have struggled to find an adequate approach to tackle an issue spiraling so quickly out of control — until last winter, when an army of surveyors from Detroit’s newly convened Blight Removal Task Force set out to catalog the condition of every single land parcel.

What they found is sure to directly impact the city’s efforts to beat blight. But on top of that, the report is also likely to color the ways in which neighborhood alliances, preservation networks, urban planners and residents think about their blocks and the futures they’ll have there.

The Michigan Daily

Jamil Abdul Hakim's eldest daughter relaxes in a community-built park on Lyndon Street. Behind her sit consecutive vacant lots, cleared of blighted houses, that her family use for all-terrain vehicles.

Blank Canvas

Last fall, the Obama Administration helped establish a local task force charged with developing a plan to remove every single blighted parcel out of Detroit’s 380,000 parcels of land, totaling 142 square miles.

In May, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force released a prolific report not only detailing the scope of the city’s blight problem, but also laying out a set of policy recommendations designed to both keep blight from spreading and tear down the houses that couldn’t be saved. The cost of addressing blight on vacant lots, residential structures and small commercial buildings alone is expected to top $850 million.

Of the parcels in that group, 40,077 structures and 6,135 vacant lots require immediate attention in the form of either demolition or lot clean up. Another 38,429 structures display indicators of future blight. The report estimates 80 to 90 percent of those buildings will eventually face the wrecking ball. All together, about 22 percent of the city’s land parcels have structures destined for demolition.

When the plan was presented to the public and city officials last month, Task Force co-chair Dan Gilbert, the chairman of mortgage giant Quicken Loans, compared blight to a malignant tumor “because, like cancer, unless you remove the entire tumor, blight grows back.”

The Michigan Daily

In Detroit's Jefferson-Mack neighborhood many blighted homes are being demolished while others are boarded up in hopes of deterring criminal activity.

Sean Jackson is the 25-year-old Quicken Loans associate Gilbert appointed to lead the Motor City Mapping Project, the report’s mapping component. Jackson said dealing with blight is in many ways a precursor to improving most everything else in the city, including education, crime, unemployment and public health. Blight also affects the city’s image, especially in the eyes of potential investors and residents.

“Having this image of being the blight porn city when people come here and they want to go to the Packard Plant and see the abandoned train station, that’s not what you want your city to be known for,” he said. “You want your city to be known for its tech community or its vibrant downtown or its arts and culture — not for having a ton of abandoned buildings in it.”

Last winter, the Motor City Mapping Project, collaborated with Loveland Technologies, a local startup, and non-profit Data Driven Detroit to hire 150 residents to survey every property in the city over a two-month period. Wielding tablets, the teams took photographs of each property, assessed its condition and logged the results in the project’s database.

Organizers also tapped into city and county records — 24 existing datasets in all — to compile the most comprehensive and complete look at the city’s land to date. The data is already available online. Motor City Mapping is in the process of launching an application that allows residents to update the status of sites on their street — a process they call “blexting.”

It’s likely this kind of project couldn’t have happened ten years ago. Technology, in part, has made the effort feasible. But even with data, decisions about where and when to target demolitions can be somewhat subjective.

The Michigan Daily

For that reason, Jackson noted the Task Force is engaging residents with more block-based knowledge, but said razing blighted structures isn’t likely to be unpopular.

“I can’t imagine anybody is going to argue taking down a house,” he said. “These houses are not in good shape. When we’re talking about taking them down, they’re already fire-damaged, they haven’t had anybody living in them for ten years, the windows are broken, the porch is collapsed, the roof is failing. It’s not something you’d want next to you.”

For the Task Force, annihilating blighted properties is the name of the game. Organizers hope to eliminate the majority of blight over about five years, but the report purposefully stops short of considering what should be done with the land once it’s been cleared.

The report suggests several policies intended to fend off future blight, such as property tax reforms and cracking down on scrapping and illegal dumping, but Jackson said it’s best if the city and other organizations drive the vision from there.

“When you create this opportunity – when you create a blank canvas, people are going to want to build there,” he said. “I truly believe that. We’re going to help you get rid of the blight, then we’re going to pass it off.”

Future City

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office is already working to craft a revised master plan for the city’s future, much of it influenced by a strategic framework called Detroit Future City. Conceived as a comprehensive tool to help guide policy decisions, the framework outlines a vision for Detroit’s city systems, neighborhoods and economic growth. But perhaps the strategy’s most radical component is re-thinking the way Detroit uses its land.

Dara O’Byrne, a convener for land use issues in the Detroit Future City Implementation Office, said residents and policymakers must see vacant land as an amenity, rather than a liability. Part of that adjustment requires reimagining what land should be used for in the future, and in many cases, that’s not traditional development.

But for those still holding onto homes in nearly vacant neighborhoods, options the initiative is considering, such as urban forestry, may not feel like a promising future.

The Michigan Daily

Many vacant homes in Brightmoor are being reclaimed by the forest.

O’Byrne said the framework’s emphasis on modeling and data — plus an extensive civic engagement process that included conversations with 163,000 residents — has helped bring more residents on board. Detroit Future City completed one of the first surveys of the city’s land in 2009 — a precursor to the Motor City Mapping Project. By using demographic trends, market conditions and a variety of other factors, analysts were able to project a neighborhood’s population 10, 20 and 50 years down the road. When residents see the numbers, O’Byrne said they are more apt to embrace alternative visions for their neighborhoods.

“Often without the data, we’ve been making decisions based on wishful thinking,” she said.

Still, some people have argued the framework — which recommends certain neighborhoods eventually transition into urban meadows, forests or farms, for example – contradicts a mantra touted by Duggan during his campaign: “Every neighborhood has a future.”

“We aren’t saying people have to move out of these areas,” O’Byrne said. “We’re saying these areas are no longer the dense residential areas that they may have been 50 years ago. It’s not that that neighborhood doesn’t have a future; it’s just a different future than it was 50 years ago.”

While the framework recommends some neighborhoods remain as medium-density residential areas, others could eventually turn to “innovative ecological” spaces with meadows and forests, “large parks” or “green mixed-use,” while other areas become reenergized district centers complete with housing and retail.

The Michigan Daily

One home in the Brightmoor neighborhood is painted with the words "God makes beautiful things, He makes beautiful things out of the dust."

Though the availability of clear open spaces is likely to grow as blight removal efforts accelerate, it’s uncertain how long it will take for the city to resemble the vision articulated by Detroit Future City. O’Byrne said she’s heard the mayor’s office is using the framework “as their bible.” The initiative has also established an implementation office that’s designed to help ensure the proposals are adopted.

The city is already working concepts from the framework into policy, including efforts to fill houses in neighborhoods that are the best candidates to remain residential. In high-occupancy neighborhoods, the city’s newly consolidated land bank has started auctioning vacant homes at a rate of two per day. Buyers are required to occupy and fix-up the house within six months of purchase. Last week, the auction reached $1 million in sales.

Claire Nowak-Boyd, the executive director of Preservation Detroit, said her organization carried out its own building survey last year, in part to inform the land bank of houses prime for restoration.

While Jackson said most of the houses slated for demolition are the poorly constructed, mid-century box houses, Nowak-Boyd argues there are still some older houses subject to demolition that deserve saving. Last week, the Michigan Historic Preservation Network released a video called “Vacant, not Blighted.”

“To look at every building as blighted and needing to come down is a mistake,” said MHPN preservation specialist Emilie Evans.

In neighborhoods like the historic, tree-lined Boston-Edison neighborhood, the auctions are helping stymie any hint of blight by reoccupying the street’s few vacant houses.

“It keeps hope alive and it keeps history alive,” said Raquel Robinson as she sipped a beer on the porch of her childhood home on Longfellow Street in Boston-Edison.

The house next door recently sold in a land bank auction. A refuse container for the renovation already sits in the driveway.

“It makes the future brighter, that they’re still cherishing certain things, especially homes,” she said.

But in other neighborhoods, areas where blight has packed a much greater punch, community alliances aren’t waiting for the city.

The Michigan Daily

Homes in the historic Boston-Edison neighborhood have been collected by the City of Detroit Land Bank for auction.

Finding Home in Brightmoor

Take Brightmoor, the far west side neighborhood that’s home to Judy Sackett’s Lyndon Street.

For long stretches, neighborhood streets exude the silence of rolling country roads. Foliage peeks through window frames, nature reclaiming skeleton houses.

But as much as Brightmoor fits the image of decay so often depicted in the national media, it’s also home to dozens of community organizations that are refusing to let blight define their neighborhood.

Riet Schumack and Rev. Larry Simmons sit on the Board of Directors of the Brightmoor Alliance, a coalition of more than 50 organizations grappling with issues such as vacant land, crime and affordable housing.

“One of the things I enjoy about Brightmoor is the multitude of approaches people are taking,” Simmons said. “So instead of having the blight spread, what we’re trying to do is spread the positive. And in Brightmoor, I think it’s working.”

According to Detroit Future City’s 50-year vision, large swaths of Brightmoor should eventually become “innovation productive.” That could include urban farming, soil cleaning, urban forestry or other efforts to change the “public perception of vacant land.”

Though a total transformation of Brightmoor is likely decades away, the landscape is already changing. Data obtained from the Motor City Mapping Project shows almost 50 percent of the 9,848 surveyed lots are vacant, the result of earlier demolition efforts. Another 1,636 are home to unoccupied structures.

The decay of housing in Brightmoor mirrors changes in many of the city’s neighborhoods. The homes here were built cheaply to house the workers flooding into Detroit for jobs in the region’s booming auto industry. When those jobs disappeared, so did the people. In 1950, Detroit’s population was more than 1.8 million. Today, just over 700,000 people call the city home.

In recent years, community gardens and other gathering spaces have sprung up in Brightmoor. The Alliance gives community groups resources like paint, brushes and plywood to initiate projects at the block level.

The Michigan Daily

An abandoned school in Brightmoor is painted with a scene and quote from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax.

Motor City Blight Busters, another staple on the Brightmoor landscape, has spent the past 26 years launching a grassroots assault on blight. But on top of taking down houses, they’ve lead successful efforts to restore buildings, kick-start new businesses and jumpstart urban farming. Blight Busters helped reinvigorate a strip of Lahser Road, just north of Brightmoor, called Artist Village. The flagship shop, Motor City Java, is now a center for community activities.

Although the two have invested serious time into blight-busting themselves, both Blight Busters founder John George and Rev. Simmons said they welcome Duggan’s plans to mechanize the demolition process.

“If I never have to tear down another abandoned house, I’d be fine with that,” George said. “We started Blight Busters because the city wasn’t doing what it needs to do. Now, finally, a quarter of a century later, we have a mayor that gets it.”

Schumack noted that increased city involvement could impede the efforts of neighborhood-based organizations, saying projects like boarding houses or turning an abandoned home into a performance space technically require city permission. However, they’ve been left alone so far. The city’s tendency to turn a blind eye, she said, has helped foster innovation.

“There needs to be planning, but it can’t be superimposed from the government,” she said. "I think creativity comes out of the people.”

Lyndon Street

Life on Judy Sackett’s Lyndon Street is slowly improving. A community group has established a small garden on a lot next door. Sackett hopes the mayor’s plan will accelerate the changes, but says she’s not planning on going anywhere.

“Everybody around here is working to try to make it better,” she said. “That’s the main thing.”

In a park one of the neighbors has erected on the corner, neighbor Jamil Abdul Hakim points out the fire pit and a pond filled with pricy fish. He’s proud of his block, but he said transient renters just don’t care enough to invest in their community. He said taking ownership is critical.

“I’m not going anywhere until death do me part,” he said. “My kids right now are telling me, ‘I want you to buy that land because I’m going to build my house on it when I get bigger.'"


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