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

Vacant stores in Detroit


Jillian Kay Melchior

Whitfield says that such nongovernmental efforts teach an important political lesson in Detroit, where government dependency feeds a general lawlessness. In Wayne County, where Detroit is located, more than 36 percent of the population receives some form of government assistance, according to a Mackinac Center calculation based on the Department of Human Services Green Book.

“If the government could fix the problem, they would,” Whitfield says. “This isn’t about the government anymore. Everything we know that’s historically held up this city is broken. It’s a bit of a radical way of thinking . . . [but] our government has to change. It has to go back to what it was, going all the way back to the Constitution.” Such community efforts teach Detroit residents to govern themselves, she says: “It’s no longer about whether the government is going to take care of me. It’s about what I can create so I can take care of me.”

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Last spring, the Detroit Free Press ran a series about the obstacle that blight presents to education: Getting to school is sometimes more danger than it’s worth. The article featured the plight of Shantique Skinner, an 18-year-old who walks 1.7 miles to school each morning:  “She passes at least 88 vacant homes on her way there. And dozens of abandoned lots. She walks on blocks where the streetlights are busted or don’t work. And she does it in a ZIP code that the U.S. Attorney’s Office called one of Detroit’s most deadly last year.” The article caught the attention of Brian Farkas, a 31-year-old former assistant attorney general, who in turn passed it on to his friend Bill Pulte, 24.

If the name Pulte rings a bell, that’s because of the family business. Bill’s grandfather William founded Pulte Homes when he was 18, building his first home in Detroit in 1950. Today, the company is the largest homebuilder in the United States, constructing more than half a million houses in its 63-year history; at one point, it employed 130,000 people. In the words of one Detroit blight worker, the Pultes are “billionaires — and that’s with a B.”

Bill Pulte, today the CEO of Pulte Capital, says the article inspired him to do something to address blight in Detroit. He talked to his grandfather, proposing to “reverse engineer” the principles that had contributed to Pulte Homes’ success and apply them to a massive demolition effort. The grandfather-grandson duo approached Mayor Bing, proposing a privately funded pilot project. The mayor agreed.

“We knocked down ten blocks in ten days, the fastest it’s ever been done,” Pulte says. “We did it for half the cost [of government blight-removal efforts]. . . . If we applied the types of principles the government has applied, we’d be broke.” He’s determined to apply free-market principles to demolition efforts, “solving this as a businessman would.”

Pulte’s pilot program was the launching point for the Detroit Blight Authority, a nonprofit group founded by Pulte and his team, which includes Hill-Harris, the son of slain firefighter Walter Harris. Before the Pultes got involved, Hill-Harris had worked with other organizations to demolish blight buildings in honor of his father, but the undertaking was Herculean, he says. “We had been partnering with other organizations, had gone in with just a hammer and some boots, taken the buildings apart by hand,” he says. “One building — we just spent all day tearing it down — there were potentially 20 new [blight buildings] created a day. . . . It’s really our family’s story.” Being a part of the Blight Authority’s renewal effort makes Hill-Harris feel that his father’s death “wasn’t in vain,” he says. “It was the spark that led to something.”

The Blight Authority is led by retired lieutenant colonel James H. Henderson, who managed resupply missions for the Iraq War in 2004. Working alongside the mayor’s office, the Kresge Foundation, DTE Energy, Michigan Caterpillar, and others, the Blight Authority has launched the most ambitious anti-blight effort Detroit has ever seen.

“The Blight Authority is exactly what the doctor ordered,” says George, the veteran Detroit blight-buster. “Their strategy, their focus, their professionalism — they’re really looking at this with a new set of eyes. They’re being creative.” Already, the Blight Authority has demonstrated it can tear down a house for $5,000 or less.

Previous public-sector efforts have failed because of “this continual belief by government that they know how to do every little thing [better] than people who specialize in it,” Pulte says. “They think they can do things better, and they can’t. The blight in Detroit is a [symptom] of the government’s not being able to perform in any way, shape, or form. [Fortunately], that’s not the way that Mayor Bing views this problem.”

Unlike previous municipal-led efforts, the Blight Authority is hiring contractors based solely on which bid offers the highest quality and lowest cost, taking union and open-shop bids alike. Whereas previous demolition efforts attacked one building at a time, hopping around the city, the Blight Authority seeks to target whole regions. The goal, Lieutenant Colonel Henderson says, is to maintain around 2,000 structures in the queue at any given time. This concentrated, large-scale approach helps the group save on transportation and complete the project more efficiently. And when they leave, the neighborhood is clean.

The Blight Authority is also taking a whack at the red tape that’s held up previous efforts. It has negotiated with the city and DTE Energy to waive some of the fees and permitting expenses. And, rather than using the city’s unwieldy data systems, the Blight Authority is working directly with DTE Energy to contact the last resident on file, then reaching out to the property owner to obtain permission to wreck the building. Owners stand to benefit because they retain all property rights and get the undesirable building torn down for free.

Finally, where previous efforts took the waste material from a demolition to the landfill 40 to 80 miles away — another expense — the Blight Authority recycles around 80 percent of the rubble.

“I don’t know if government and government administrations are designed to solve problems,” Henderson says. “I think they’re designed to administer regulations and keep the status quo. . . . But an undertaking of this magnitude will always overwhelm a city. That’s why we have [a philanthropic sector] that will come in and assist.”

Under Mayor Bing’s leadership, the city government has committed to supporting the private efforts of the Blight Authority. The group “just wants to complement, do a coordinated effort with what [the city] was doing,” says Karla Henderson, the person in the mayor’s office who is in charge of fighting blight. “That, honestly, was what was so beautiful in this relationship. It was the spirit of, ‘Let’s work as a team.’” The mayor’s office is “helping them navigate around some of these government bureaucracies that are sitting in the way” Henderson says. “Our role is to support. And sometimes, our role is just to get out of the way.”

The Blight Authority is a source of hope in an otherwise troubling urban setting. If it succeeds, this private effort may change not only Detroit’s physical landscape but also its political one. Detroit’s blight problem is a tangible lesson about the limits of government. Like other efforts before it, the Blight Authority demonstrates that real power for change lies with private citizens who understand those limits — and then get to work themselves.

Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.