Fri, Oct 03, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Detroit fights blight with demolitions

Motor City is knocking down 200 houses a week, with 40,000 to go and US$1 billion in the program. The controversial plan aims to bring more wealthy investors, but critics say will it drive out black residents

By Rose Hackman  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Shervonne Colvin is ecstatic. This spring, one streetlight was turned back on at the end of her block. Last month, almost one-third of her block was razed to the ground by demolition trucks.

That would hardly excite most city dwellers, but Colvin does not live in just any city. She lives in Detroit, where municipal neglect has become customary. Detroit has been the unwitting star of a photographic subgenre christened “ruin porn,” with fans in all corners of the world — except in its native hometown.

Two years ago — the same year Forbes named Detroit the most dangerous city in the US — local media reported that abandoned homes had become dumping grounds for dead bodies.

Good riddance to that, residents say.

“It makes me feel like the city is doing something, that they are paying attention. For years we felt like we’d been forgotten. We were frightened to walk down the street. It felt like a Third World country out here,” Colvin says.

For the first time in 15 years, the 54-year-old resident of northwest Detroit, a former educator and cosmetologist, says she feels like she is a part of the city again. Her block in northwest Detroit has been gone for years now.

She says the only reason she has stayed is because her husband refuses to go.

The destruction of the houses on Colvi’s block is the result of a renewed city effort launched this spring to completely eradicate residential blight in Detroit over a period of five years, at a total estimated cost of just under US$1 billion. Each house demolition costs about US$15,000 a pop.

So far, demolitions are happening at a speed of at least 200 houses a week. Even at that pace, it is a crawl. There are more than 40,000 houses and buildings that qualify for immediate blight removal.

Then there is money: US$1 billion. About half of the US$850 million needed to finance residential blight removal in the next five years is to come out of Detroit’s “Plan of Adjustment,” which is being scrutinized by Judge Steven Rhodes of the US Bankruptcy Court.

The rest of the money is to come from a variety of entities, including private, foundation and federal sources. Some will come from a federal Hardest Hit Fund of US$52.3 million given out last fall and originally destined towards foreclosure relief.

No other US city has ever attempted such a large-scale operation.

At stake is the city’s future financial recovery — even though a meager 430 jobs are expected to be created over the next five years from the city’s US$1 billion investment. A literal blank slate of emptied streets would free up land for new buildings and theoretically send a welcoming signal to corporate investors and potential new residents of a wealthier — and inevitably whiter — ilk.

White and middle-class flight to the suburbs, which accelerated after the 1967 race riots, is a large factor in the changing demographics of the city over the past six decades, as well as its depleted tax base.

Detroit went from being majority white and a symbol of the US’ thriving middle class, with a population of 1.8 million in the late 1950s, to being 82 percent black today, with a median household income nearing the poverty line and a population now under 700,000.

According to a city data survey called Motor City Mapping, 53,000 occupied homes in Detroit are eligible for tax foreclosure because of owners running behind on property taxes, with more than one-third of those gone up for auction last month. This Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction is where you can famously pick up houses for just US$500.

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