Politics & Policy

Battling Blight in Detroit

A new private-public partnership succeeds where government has failed.

James Hill-Harris walked down the long hospital hallway, his fellow firefighters stepping aside. They were silent, red-faced, and wet-cheeked. When he’d heard about the accident, Hill-Harris had hoped his father had just been burned, as had happened many times before on the job. But it was worse. Walter Harris — a firefighter, a minister, a big, gentle man known for his hearty laughter and his passion for the city of Detroit — was gone.

Firefighting “was something we shared, that only he and I in the family really truly shared,” Hill-Harris says. “We knew what it was like, that fear that you weren’t going to make it, the feeling of pulling someone out, the heart-wrenching feeling of dealing with a child or adult [fire victim] and trying to do CPR. The actuality of it, the emotions it invokes in you — there are some things that we shouldn’t have to see. We shouldn’t have to see. It wears on your soul.”

In the early hours of November 15, 2008, Walter Harris had responded to an arson blaze at a two-story “blight house” at 7418 Kirby in East Detroit. The team had nearly put the fire out, so Harris and two other firemen climbed upstairs, looking for any flames that might be trapped in the walls. But the building’s structure had been weakened during that blaze and a previous one, and as wall studs and support beams gave way, one firefighter felt wood strike his helmet.

Then, with a terrible crack, the roof collapsed, landing on Harris, a 38-year-old father of six boys. His fellow firefighters dug through the wreckage, searching for him, but it was too late. “He died of mechanical asphyxiation — a portion of the roof had landed on him and prevented him from breathing,” reports the prosecutor’s brief filed to the Michigan Supreme Court last week.

“My dad had given his life for the city of Detroit,” says Hill-Harris, who now works as an arson investigator. “We want [his death] to not have been in vain. How can we prevent another family going through this pain? We’ve got to get rid of these [blight] houses. They’re just sitting, waiting to fall on another firefighter. We go to the same house three, four times. Every time it burns, it weakens the structural integrity, and it becomes a place that’s just waiting to collapse on one of us.”

Blight is the most characteristic feature of Detroit’s 139 square miles, a problem the local government has utterly failed to address. The abandoned buildings provide the opportunity for crime, spawning additional problems that the city’s elected leaders struggle to address.

The most innovative answers are coming from community leaders such as Hill-Harris and his partners at Detroit’s Blight Authority, a new private-public partnership founded on free-market principles. Such efforts from the private, artistic, and charitable sectors are succeeding where Detroit’s government has long failed.

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View a pictorial of the Heidelberg Project art installations.

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The latest numbers list 38,779 structures on Detroit’s Dangerous Building Inventory. More are at risk. Between 2000 and 2010, the city lost 237,500 inhabitants — one-fourth of its population. And in 2007, Detroit was first in the nation for metro-area foreclosures, with one in 20 households succumbing. Today, 80,000 Detroit addresses no longer receive mail.

“Blight is a very tricky adversary,” says John George, founder of Motor City Blight Busters, a nonprofit that has worked on more than 1,500 abandoned houses over the past 25 years. “You eliminate it in one spot, and it pops up somewhere else. It’s also like a cancer: If you don’t nip it, it spreads. . . . We really are at war. It’s a fight against blight. It’s a cunning, tricky adversary. I’ve never seen anything like it. It almost has a personality.”

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.

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.

These are just a few examples. Red tape abounds, driving up the cost. Tearing down a single blight building typically takes between $10,000 and $12,000. In other words, to eradicate existing blight in Detroit would cost about half a billion dollars at the current rate. And that’s in a city with a $327 million accumulated deficit, a cash-flow deficit nearing $100 million, and $14.9 billion in unfunded liabilities. So Detroiters can be forgiven for their skepticism that things will ever change.

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Although Detroit’s government has failed to solve its blight problem, artists and charitable groups have been making small strides in recent decades.

When race riots broke out in Detroit in 1967, Heidelberg Street in East Detroit was located in one of the hardest-hit areas. Like the Motor City itself, Heidelberg Street didn’t recover afterward. The block continued to deteriorate until one day in 1986 when an artist named Tyree Guyton had an idea. Guyton, who lives in Detroit, used discarded objects and paint to turn the blighted buildings into open-air art installations.

So began the Heidelberg Project, which transforms abandoned buildings into art. Heidelberg Street itself is a permanent art installation; Guyton and other volunteers have decorated buildings with stuffed animals, records, shopping carts, telephones, doll parts, and other bizarre items, creating garishly colorful displays. One might find them creepy, but blocks away, unadorned blight buildings mar the landscape, a genuine menace to neighbors. In comparison, the Heidelberg Project’s metamorphosed buildings appear more whimsical than scary. (View pictorial of the Heidelberg Project installations)

Guyton and his project have been featured in Time and Essence magazines, and on the Today show and other national media. The Heidelberg was the subject of an Emmy-winning HBO documentary, and pieces from the project have gone on display in Europe and Australia. Meanwhile, Heidelberg Street’s artistic fame has made it a top tourist attraction in Detroit — a draw that has kept the neighborhood safer. The Heidelberg Project also provides art education to children and collaborates with other community groups to lead neighborhood-revitalization projects around Detroit.

“We don’t really understand the impact of walking past a nasty, burnt-out building,” says Jenenne Whitfield, the executive director of the Heidelberg Project. “You can fix that script, you can turn things around. Ultimately, isn’t that what we want — to empower people? We don’t want to empower buildings, but they become the catalyst.”

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.


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