The Detroit Free Press recently published an editorial about the devastating effects of scrapping on Detroit neighborhoods. The article aptly discusses the need for — hopefully impending — legislation that will make it difficult for scrappers to sell obviously stolen materials, one of the biggest issues facing the bankrupt city today.

No surprises here — I couldn’t agree more with the Freep’s incredibly uncontroversial opinion.

What, then, is missing from their otherwise on-point analysis? Something — anything really — that grounds scrapping, and its processes and effects, in reality.

Let’s be real, scrapping and the fear of scrapping, squatting and other related crimes don’t regularly instill fear in most University students and Ann Arbor residents. When we leave our homes for class during the day, or even when we leave them unoccupied for longer periods of time over breaks, hardly a thought is given to the potential burglarizing of our TVs, gaming consoles and personal possessions. Even less consideration is given to the possible theft of furnaces, plumbing and copper wiring that probably earns much less cash on the black market.

These are fears many Detroit residents face every day — even though scrapping is associated most with recently abandoned homes. Unless vigorously protected, a newly vacant home in Detroit will be completely vandalized within 48 hours.

Although I can never claim to understand the true effects of scrapping — neither the strain nor the cost encumbering individuals — working at a Detroit-based human-services nonprofit prior to graduate school exposed me, somewhat, to these daily horrors.

The Detroit Rescue Mission, the organization I worked for, had a program that received donated homes from individuals, banks and the city of Detroit and, provided we could repair the homes at an affordable price, deeded the fixed-up properties to homeless families we served. In my capacity, I frequently ventured out to different parts of the city to inspect homes under consideration.

There isn’t adequate space in this column to do justice to what I saw, but, almost exclusively, unless the home was currently occupied, there was no chance we’d acquire the property. Not only are Detroit homes among the oldest in the metropolitan area — a common plight in central cities across the United States — but poorer occupants are often financially incapable of investing in the upkeep of these properties. As neighborhoods deteriorate further, crime spreads and adjacent housing declines as well. The resulting desire to leave the neighborhood further disincentivizes even basic maintenance, creating cycles of neighborhood deterioration.

Adding to these existing problems, scrappers tear apart the walls to get at the plumbing and wiring and steal all appliances, senselessly and needlessly destroying the infrastructure. They quickly make it cheaper to raze and rebuild than to rehabilitate the property.

Even boarding up unoccupied homes is a fruitless endeavor. Beyond signaling to scrappers that, “Hey, this property is now unoccupied 24/7,” most reasonably priced board-up methods are easily circumnavigated. When the Detroit Rescue Mission accepted a donated home, we relocated a client to the property immediately. They kept the premises secured at night while we finished the rehab work.

The only marginally effective counter to scrappers targeting abandoned homes is the diligence of neighbors — but even then, the limitations of such measures are obvious when you consider the pervasiveness of abandoned structures in Detroit — as many as 78,000 according to some estimates — and the need for residents to, you know, actually sleep at night.

Once, when looking at a home near Grandmont on Detroit’s west side, a neighbor confronted me upon hearing someone enter the house. After explaining my organization’s intentions, he told me how he regularly had to chase away squatters and scrappers alike in the home. A college student in his early, maybe mid-twenties, he was attending the University of Detroit-Mercy and had grown more fearful recently after his neighbor on the other side of the vacant home had been burglarized while at work just days before. He said he felt like the vandals were moving house-by-house down the block, and that his house was next on the hit list. He even asked if we had homes in other neighborhoods he could live in while finishing school.

I know it’s uncontroversial to say — scrapping, squatting and home burglaries are bad. But why, then, has it taken lawmakers this long to do more to minimize the potential financial benefit of the already-illegal practice?

Maybe they, like us, simply aren’t aware of scrapping’s real-life impacts on real-life people.

Alexander Hermann can be reached at aherm@umich.edu.

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