Today, Mr. George’s “Motor City Blight Busters” business has worked on 1,500 ruined properties in northwestern Detroit, the bulk of which are in one of the hardest hit areas in the city called Brightmoor.
It appears to be an endless task. For every house that Mr. George and his team board up, refurbish or tear down, another unsightly property pops up.
“It took a long time to get in this mess and will take a while to get out of it,” he said.
For now, Mr. George’s Brightmoor neighbourhood has been excluded from receiving federal funds. That’s because the city appears to be targeting areas that it can quickly stabilize. One is called Grandmont Rosedale, a wealthier part of northwest Detroit that is touched less dramatically by foreclosures.
With its winding roads, brick houses and decent schools, Grandmont Rosedale had always been a stable neighbourhood. But when the housing market imploded and sent millions of homes across the United States into foreclosure, a small strip within the community spiralled out of control. One row of houses leading to an elementary school was abandoned, something unheard of in this part of town. About 20 blighted properties have now been torn down, a move that is helping restore the neighbourhood back to its pre-crisis state.
Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, contends that every neighbourhood can have a similar future. But just how that can happen with scant resources and more than 80,000 properties in disrepair, isn’t clear. And the real cost of blight is much bigger than the $2-billion price tag. Blight doesn’t just hurt property values. It becomes a breeding ground for crime and a health hazard, all of which leads residents to flee.
‘The houses went to hell’
Decades of neglect, bad management and an eroding economic base have driven people out of Detroit and into the surrounding suburbs in droves. The city’s population has plummeted from 1.85 million in 1950 to less than 700,000, with more leaving almost daily.
The falling population and weak economy have contributed to the city’s financial ruin. Unemployed residents can’t pay property taxes or rent and abandon their homes. Soon scavengers rip the building apart and steal the hot water tank, fixtures, copper pipes, electrical wiring and just about anything else of value.
The houses become unsalable and no one has the money or interest in fixing them up. Rebuilding would cost up to $150,000 per property and even then the house would barely fetch $80,000 on the market. It’s easier just to let them sit there. Fire damage is prevalent as it allows owners to recoup some of their losses through fire insurance.
“As quick as you clean it up, it’s back,” said Michael Christopher, 57, who has spent his entire life in Detroit and mows other people’s lawns to try to keep his neighbourhood neat. He works two part-time jobs and witnessed his father lose his businesses in Delray.
The plight puts him and other residents in a tough spot.
Eighty-five-year old Mary Fraser lives close to Palmer Woods, a wealthy area near the upper limits of the city that sits next to a golf course and is lined with mansions belonging to former auto executives. But Ms. Fraser’s street has become a target for arsonists and every house across from her is burned out.
“The houses went to hell,” Ms. Fraser said from her sagging porch. “I hate to see it looking like this.”
Ms. Fraser’s neighbourhood looks completely uninhabited. Her son and grandson come by to mow the lawn, the only sign that her house has not been deserted. She moved to Detroit from Tennessee in the 1950s and worked until her hip gave out. Now she spends most of her time inside watching television.
Ms. Fraser would like to move, but said she can’t afford to, as her only income comes from social security checks.
Unpaid property taxes
Removing blighted homes is costly and time consuming. The process can take months and costs run between $9,000 and $25,000, not including extra costs for taking out any asbestos and maintaining the vacant land.
For grassroots blight removers like Mr. George, the process takes much longer, especially as he has to rely on grants, donations and volunteers. First, he has to figure out who owns the property, and then buy it. There’s also the cost of paying the city and gas company to disconnect utilities, and the time required to obtain permits to wreck the building.