The daunting task of mapping and demolishing nearly 80,000 vacant and blighted homes in the city of Detroit is currently underway. But blight removal has been a major priority for the last two mayoral administrations under Kwame Kilpatrick and Dave Bing, and neither made a significant dent in the growing problem.
Still, the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force — commissioned in late 2013 to catalog every parcel of land in the city and create a plan to deconstruct those structures designated as economically unviable within six years — represents the city’s best attempt yet to raze dilapidated structures that constantly threaten residents’ personal security and livelihood.
Unfortunately, the already difficult task of massive blight removal — with a price tag potentially exceeding $1 billion — is just the beginning.
But to this point, city officials haven’t had the answers to the toughest questions concerning city redevelopment: What happens when the mapping is finished? When the blighted parcels are cleared? And, most importantly, what happens with the vacant homes and structures deemed “economically viable”?
Though it’s hardly a panacea to any city’s redevelopment efforts, land banks represent one important, and underutilized, tool to answer those questions in Detroit.
The idea behind land banks is simple, and they are already pervasive in Michigan. Land banks are quasi-public entities, often overseen by elected county officials that utilize the best practices in urban planning and community development to help stabilize communities and clear blight. Typically, state legislation enables land banks to possess foreclosed homes before they become available to speculators and the broader public through county auctions.
Land banks benefit neighborhoods suffering from rampant disinvestment, foreclosures and high vacancy rates by being mission-driven with no profit motive. In these environments, oftentimes the market for housing has all but deteriorated, and foreclosed homes can sit on the county auction list for years. Not demolished due to lack of funding, these residences quickly become targets for scrapping, arson, squatting and other illegal activities detrimental to the surrounding neighborhood.
For better or worse, the city already has its own land bank — the Detroit Land Bank Authority. But since its inception the DLBA has never lived up to its potential, even if that’s no fault of the organization itself.
As John Gallagher’s most recent book, “Revolution Detroit: Strategies for Urban Reinvention”, notes, the DLBA has been hampered politically since its founding in 2010. For example, Detroit City Council provided no funding for the organization and required it to purchase all homes from the city at fair market value. Even more importantly, the DLBA lacks the essential ties to the county to take foreclosed properties before they reach the county auction block. From the beginning, the DLBA has been overly dependent on outside funding to support the organization.
Even recent signs of improvement fall far short of remedying the DLBA’s dearth of power. New mayor Mike Duggan and City Council approved a measure in February enabling the land bank to file public nuisance lawsuits against blighted-property owners in an effort to hold these owners accountable for ruined structures. Though these efforts may prove significant in the long run, they don’t go far enough in making the DLBA a major player in the city’s redevelopment scene.
In fact, if confined exclusively to Detroit’s city limits, the DLBA will never live up to its potential.
The most successful land banks in the country have access to a diverse housing stock. With a varied housing inventory, land banks can capitalize on a basic formula. Land banks spruce up and sell homes in higher-quality neighborhoods, at rates higher than they would’ve fetched at auction, before reinvesting those “profits” in declining neighborhoods, often through strategic home rehabilitation or demolition.
The Genesee County Land Bank, one of the model land banks nationally, pioneered this concept as Flint’s leading community development organization since 2004.
However, Detroit’s housing stock by itself remains too uniformly depleted to capitalize on this model. But if housing diversity is the issue, then there’s a simple practical solution — however difficult politically in the Metropolitan Detroit context — greater regional cooperation.
The creation of a regional, tri-county or Southeast Michigan land bank including Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties at a minimum, would clearly contain a diverse enough housing stock to aid stabilizing and redevelopment efforts in Metro Detroit’s struggling neighborhoods that exist in every county — if invested with the proper authority.
Just like the demolition of 80,000 properties in Detroit won’t stem the tide of disinvestment in the city, the creation of a regional land bank certainly isn’t a panacea to curing all the region’s redevelopment ills. Regardless, employing both would mark a major step forward in the stabilization and revitalization of Detroit and the broader area.
Alexander Hermann can be reached at email@example.com.