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How Detroit has streamlined its fight against blight

September 29, 2014 at 6:15 PM EDT
Facing the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, Detroit has adopted diverse solutions to give itself a facelift. The city is tackling blight and dilapidated homes with help from technology like smartphone apps and online crowdsourcing, and offering incentives to attract new residents. Special correspondent Christy McDonald of Detroit Public Television investigates Detroit’s progress.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: how Detroit is tackling a staggering amount of blight with some unusual help. The city is going through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Earlier today, a judge ruled that Detroit is permitted to shut off water for residents if they don’t pay their bills. This comes as the city is under a great deal of pressure to turn around its larger deteriorating situation, including thousands of shuttered buildings.

Special correspondent Christy McDonald from Detroit Public Television has our story, as part of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative, funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation and the Renaissance Journalism Project of the Ford Foundation.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: A demolition crew at work in Northwest Detroit. This one crew will knock down up to 10 houses in a day. Ronald Garrison lives next door to this one, vacant for years. Trespassers looted it of anything of value.

RONALD GARRISON: The man down the street boarded it up. And they used to come rip the boards off and still go back in there. And he would have to come board it up again.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: The numbers are in. There are nearly 80,000 dilapidated structures across the city of Detroit, a number so high because of scrappers, vandals tearing everything of value out of vacant properties, leaving them open to the elements. Once there is structural damage, the houses have to come down.

DERRICK WATTS: Oh yes.

The scrapping is so rampant, Derrick Watts says even inhabited homes can be targets.

DERRICK WATTS: You have to watch your house even if you go on vacation. You can go on vacation, and come back and your house will be scrapped. So you got to watch it, really, 24 hours a day, because that’s the thing now. That’s the hustle now.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: With the city bankrupt and operating under an emergency manager, Detroit’s new mayor, Michael Duggan, is focusing on the demolition of the tens of thousands of houses stripped beyond repair.

And what kind of speed are we seeing and what — the numbers that we’re seeing?

Mayor Michael Duggan, Detroit: Well, it’s pretty remarkable. The city has historically knocked down maybe 50 houses a week. We’re now knocking down 200 to 250 every single week.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Before Duggan, the city’s demolition plan had been slowed by bureaucracy. Duggan took office in January. He says his new team has been able to streamline the demolition program. Now residents like Kai Belcher (ph) are seeing action.

MAN: I came home one day, these were houses was down first. And then my mother said they were coming back for the other ones because they had the paper up. So I was, you know, sure that they were going to come back and take care of the rest of them. So it’s pretty good.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Last year, the Obama administration and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder helped create the Detroit Blight Task Force. The task force brought together government, foundations and private groups, some for the first time.

Glenda Price co-chairs the task force. She said when everybody started working together, things started to happen.

GLENDA PRICE, Co-Chair, Detroit Blight Task Force: But you did not see impact because there was no concentrated strategy to go neighborhood by neighborhood, where you could actually see a difference.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: And you finally have it.

GLENDA PRICE: And we finally have it.

You can’t do one house on the East Side, one house in Brightmoor, one house someplace else and feel as though you have made a difference. You do three houses on one block, and, by golly, you have made a difference.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: So you had a staggering number of blighted properties.

GLENDA PRICE: Yes.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: I can only understand there would be a staggering price tag to go with it, to remove them.

GLENDA PRICE: Approximately $1 billion.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: The city has some of that money in the bank, but it’s nowhere near enough to remove all the blight, which is estimated to take five years.

Where does the money come from a city that’s going through a bankruptcy process?

MIKE DUGGAN: Yes, that’s a really good question. And so the first $50 million came from the federal government in TARP funds. And I got an application in now for another $50 million. And — and I think if the federal government continues to see the progress we’re making, they will be supportive.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: In the fight against blight, technology is key. Citizens are using a smartphone app to tracks changes in their neighborhoods, for better or worse. It’s called blexting, short for blight texting.

This is the crowdsourcing of information and comes courtesy of a couple of young Detroit entrepreneurs. Sandra Yu does community outreach for the program.

SANDRA YU, Loveland Technologies: Loveland Technologies is a text startup in Detroit. And they are just geeks about property and wanting property to be used for the highest and best use.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Norma Heath is president of the West Euclid Block Club in the Midtown area of the city.

NORMA HEATH, President, West Euclid Block Club: But this is a way that you know how to see who own the property, you see everything you need to know.

SANDRA YU: We want blexting to be part of what it means to be a citizen. You mow your lawn. You take out the trash. You blext properties in your neighborhood.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Monique Tate of the nonprofit group Data Driven Detroit hosts some of the blexting boot camps, training residents across the city.

MONIQUE TATE, Data Driven Detroit:  So having this kind of information available leads to exactly what we want, data-driven decisions, so community groups can decide, where are we going to focus our efforts and our attention, because they can easily pull up on the public dashboard a map of their specific neighborhood to see, where are the vacancies?

GLENDA PRICE: What we recommended and what they are attempting to do is look at what we are defining as tipping point neighborhoods, those neighborhoods where a little investment will stop the decline.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: This is the Marygrove neighborhood, one of the Detroit neighborhoods that is at the tipping point. There’s lots of streets just like this one where you have got homes that are well taken care of, but sandwiched in between others that are vacant and rundown. The city is now aggressively targeting homeowners, either clean up your property or lose it.

They are also offering incentives for people to buy homes like this one, to move in and to stay here.

Gloria Mitchell moved to Marygrove in 1978.

When people talk about Detroit blight and some of the neighborhoods that are up and down, how would you describe how your neighborhood and your street fits into that?

GLORIA MITCHELL: It fits right in the middle. We have quite a mix here now, where it went from working-class. It’s now retirees, former working people. It’s families, new, old. It’s everything here.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: This Marygrove home is about to be seized by the Detroit Land Bank Authority. The Land bank has been in operation for years with little notice. Now the mayor has hired more staff, including attorneys, computer techs and a communications director.

CRAIG FAHLE, Detroit Land Bank Authority: Detroit Land Bank Authority, it’s pretty simple, really. We are a place that is a clearinghouse for vacant property in the city of Detroit. Our goal is to either sell it to somebody that wants to live in it, auction it off to get somebody to live in it. And if we don’t have any other options, we will demolish the property.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: The Land Bank has started a pilot program called the Forgivable Grants Program. In Marygrove, suburban-based Talmer Bank is putting up seed money for homebuyers, money it doesn’t expect to be repaid.

Patrick Ervin runs the bank’s grant program.

PATRICK ERVIN, Talmer Bank and Trust: We are going to give a million dollars of our money in these grants that are forgivable grants for people who want to live in this neighborhood with their families, and be here for a long period of time.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Here, auction winners can receive up to $25,000 to fix up their homes if they promise to live in them for five years.

JAY MEEKS: Wow, first try.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: In Marygrove, Jay Meeks take possession of the house he won for just over $8,000.

JAY MEEKS: It’s structurally solid on the outside. It’s a decent size. I like it.

CHRISTY MCDONALD: Meeks is 29, an upwardly mobile Ph.D. student who grew up nearby. He lived on the East Coast, but recently returned home.

JAY MEEKS: I am excited about the opportunity for great things to come and my ability to contribute to them. So…

CHRISTY MCDONALD: If the Marygrove pilot project works, other parts of Detroit might get financial incentives like this one, that is, if the city can recruit more charitable lenders to bring more people back into the neighborhoods.

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