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Battling Blight in Detroit
A new private-public partnership succeeds where government has failed.

Vacant stores in Detroit

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The blight creates an apocalyptic cityscape, the perfect setting for other social woes — a place where broken-windows theory is no longer hypothetical. It is a literal embodiment of collapsing communities. And when property is allowed to deteriorate so dramatically, a culture arises in which property rights are trampled. Thieves and addicts strip the buildings of metals, sometimes electrocuting themselves in the process. Blighted buildings offer an ideal refuge for drug dealers, pimps, and criminals on the run.

The abandoned buildings also draw arsonists. Detroit has seen between 11,000 and 12,000 fires each year for the past decade, and between 60 and 70 percent occur in blighted buildings. There’s one act of arson for every 65 people within Detroit’s city limits, contributing to the feeling that the city hasn’t truly stopped burning since the 1967 race riots, the beginning of the Motor City’s end. In New York City, by comparison, it’s one arson per 3,808 people; and in Memphis, Tenn., a city roughly comparable to Detroit in size, it’s one in 2,262.

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Many of these fires are random, but others — like the fire that killed Walter Harris — are financially motivated. The city employs fewer than ten arson investigators, and only about one in eight fires is ever probed, so insurance fraud is more likely to be successful in Detroit than elsewhere, Hill-Harris says. Darian Dove, a handyman, testified that he received $20 to set the blight house at 7418 Kirby ablaze, part of an insurance-fraud scheme, according to the prosecutor’s brief. Dove said Mario Willis, a businessman, had also contracted him in 2007 to set the same property on fire, which resulted in an insurance payout of $24,755.46.

According to Dove, Willis had fallen behind on mortgage payments, so he sold the house to his girlfriend, then hired Dove to create a “light burn.” Dove testified that in the early hours of November 15, 2008, Willis picked him up and the two men bought gas and then drove to the property in a tricked-out black Excursion with a license plate that read “7MONSTA.” Dove said he went inside, doused gas, and lit the fire. It was not supposed to be a big blaze, but it grew unmanageable, so Dove fled.

The rest is history. The Harris family lost its patriarch. Willis was convicted on a second-degree-murder charge and sentenced to 41 years in prison, a ruling he has appealed. Dove turned himself in and testified, pleading guilty to second-degree murder. If justice was served, it was an anomaly for Detroit.

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The city’s leaders have long known that blight contributes to fire and crime, but Detroit’s bureaucracy has perpetually thwarted attempts to tear down abandoned buildings.

“Let me tell you a little something about government,” says George, the Blight Busters founder. “If the government were the answer, we’d all be on the beach.” Some mayors, including Dave Bing, have been better than others, but there are “a lot of rules and regulations that relate to removing property,” George says. “The government [has been] interfering with our ability and others’ ability” to do anything about the problem of blight.

Demolition efforts are expensive and inefficient. The city requires anyone who wants to demolish a building to fill out a four-page application in-person at the fourth floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, located on Woodward and Jefferson in downtown Detroit. Signatures are required from five different departments, and collecting them takes between two and four hours, George estimates. Anyone seeking to tear down a blight building must prove ownership or demonstrate that the owner has consented to a demolition — more paperwork.

Each demolition permit costs $254.00. Additionally, anyone seeking to demolish a building must show documentation confirming that gas, water, and electricity are disconnected. Historically, labor contracts have often mandated that unionized utility workers are the only ones authorized to disconnect these utilities. It costs $660 to turn off water and an additional $720 to turn off electric and gas.

“We have more volunteers than the city has employees,” George says. “Many of them are skilled electricians, carpenters. . . . We know how to disconnect gas and water lines. It would be considerably cheaper if they would just get out of our way and let us do it.”

The demolition process also depends on the house’s size. If the city deems a house too large for volunteers to wreck by hand, a professional contractor must be hired. Once the walls are torn down, the city requires that an inspector visit the site for an open-hole inspection. That, and the cost of filling the sewer line, adds an additional $500 to $1,000 to the cost. And the hole itself can’t be filled with debris from the demolition, in case the property is ever sold and rebuilt on; instead, fresh fill dirt must be purchased and used.



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