Detroit has radical plan: Raze the dead in Motor City

Detroit officials have a radical plan to reduce the geographic size of the Motor City and concentrate its population in a more dense core.

By , Staff Writer

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    Two abandoned houses are typical of the thousands of blighted properties in Detroit. This article is part of a July 25 Christian Science Monitor magazine weekly cover story package on efforts of the troubled Motor City to save itself.
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Dealing with dramatic population loss means one fundamental challenge: What to do with all the abandoned buildings?

There are 100,718 vacant addresses in Detroit, which represents about 10,950 acres, or 12 percent of the city.

"There's blight all over the place," says Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. "The first thing we have to do is clean it up."

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In 2010 Mr. Bing announced he wanted to demolish 10,000 vacant and deteriorated homes by the end of his term in December 2013, an unprecedented goal for a major city. So far, 3,000 have been razed since last year, and the city expects the same number will fall by the end of this year. To get the job done, the city secured $20 million in federal funds from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bing had an unofficial "blight summit" with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu in February 2011. The Ford and Kresge foundations funded the meeting to get the mayors brainstorming about a problem their cities both face, for two very different reasons. While New Orleans has also suffered a gradual population decline in recent decades, hurricane Katrina accelerated the exodus in 2005. US Census data show New Orleans' population dropped to 343,829 in 2010, a 29 percent loss in 10 years. Detroit is at 713,777, a 25 percent dip since 2000, and less than half its population in the 1950s.

Like Bing, Mr. Landrieu wants 10,000 dilapidated homes razed by the end of his term in 2013, which represents about a fourth of the 43,000 addresses in that category.

Both mayors are stepping up enforcement and inspections to bring absentee owners to court if they don't get their properties into compliance. Landrieu plans to launch "code enforcement sweeps" of properties located within five blocks of schools and high-traffic commercial districts. Bing wants the city to have the first rights to acquire tax-delinquent properties at no cost before speculators have the chance.

Speculators who take advantage of low real estate prices in Detroit by buying properties for cheap at sheriff auctions and then failing to pay blight fines are a significant problem. A Detroit News investigation earlier this year found that 10 private landowners, the majority of whom live outside the city, own more than 5,000 city parcels each. Most of the properties are vacant.

Detroit's foreclosure crisis is expected to worsen the problem. About 12,000 parcels were auctioned due to foreclosure in September 2010, a 44 percent increase from the same time the previous year. If homes continue to be foreclosed upon at a similar rate, the Detroit Works Project estimates that 60,000 parcels of land in Detroit will go to auction in the next five years.

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