One visual image has come to symbolise Detroit’s historic bankruptcy filing last week: a vacant, weatherbeaten home — photographers have plenty to choose from — standing abandoned in a weed-choked expanse.
For Motown to break its downward spiral of depopulation and decay, the troubled city needs to fire up its bulldozers. It must clear tens of thousands of deserted houses and garbage-strewn lots. It has to move fast, or the blight that makes much of Detroit unlivable will continue to fester and grow.
This is where bankruptcy could bring relief. We hope Detroit’s gutsy filing will give it a fresh start. If the city succeeds in getting out from under the debt and retirement obligations that overwhelm it, Detroit has an aggressive plan for dealing with blight and, over time, downsizing the services it now provides to its least populated areas. Other cities could follow Detroit’s bold example.
As is, Detroit has managed only fitful progress. Problems have dogged its efforts at urban renewal: Disputed property titles. Backlogged courts. Asbestos, lead paint and other hazards in dead structures. Overweening concerns about history being lost and sparsely settled communities being relocated as old buildings come down. Those same problems hold back Chicago and other cities from more rapidly remaking neighborhoods devastated by real-estate bust and recession.
That said, no other major city has a blight problem as widespread and withering as Detroit’s. Neglected, empty structures dot not only areas impoverished for decades, but also once-elite neighborhoods of baronial homes.
In Chicago, by contrast, blight is more tightly concentrated, mostly in poorer areas on the West and South sides. Chicago’s City Hall also is better organised than Detroit’s. This city has several avenues to take action on abandoned buildings. Often, police here write tickets for failure to secure vacant properties. If the city can’t track down owners to hold them responsible, it turns to mortgage lenders. As of mid-May, according to court records, 2,895 owners and 2,109 mortgage-holders had paid $2.8 million in fees to register vacant buildings with the city — a first step in remediating those properties.
Still, much remediation remains to be accomplished. Chicago’s leaders can glance east to see the consequences of unaddressed decay. They should look, because Detroit now may show the way.
In May, Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr unveiled a financial and operating plan that calls for an intensified program of foreclosures, demolition, and public/private partnerships to clear or redevelop newly opened land. This isn’t a scorched-city approach: The plan also calls for targeted investments to revive neighborhoods that have faltered but still could be revitalized.
If Orr manages to exit some areas while bolstering others, we suspect the results will be transformative. Removing blight decreases crime, stabilizes consolidated neighborhoods and eliminates public-safety risks. Getting rid of vacant buildings improves a city’s quality of life. In time, it raises property values.
It also leads to rationalization. As Detroit went under, it failed to reliably provide such basic services as safety, transportation and street lighting. The city lacks money to meet those needs at a sufficient level across its 139-square-mile geography — which holds 60 per cent fewer residents than it did in 1950.
The key is to put unwanted properties under centralized, local control. Turn abandoned homes into side lots for other homes, or combine them with other properties for green space or eventual development. Land banks have empowered cities to clear away unwanted structures and debris, giving the sites around them new life — most notably in Flint, Mich., not far from Detroit.
With its bankruptcy, Detroit could move even faster. The city has an opportunity to focus its resources where residents want to live, and clear out the lifeless, depopulated parts, essentially mothballing them until the population starts to rise again. We understand that encouraging longtime residents to relocate is a sensitive task fraught with potential for injustice and discrimination. For Detroit to stage a comeback, it is a necessary step, but also one that demands the intense scrutiny it would receive.
Detroit is set to embark on a huge urban experiment. Chicago and other U.S. cities will be watching. Here’s hoping for progress in a city that has had precious little of it lately. ___
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