Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A process called "blexting" and a neighborhood-focused property auction may help fix the city's crippling property woes.
Detroit, a bankrupt city simultaneously experiencing its death and rebirth, depending on whom you ask, now has a more concrete guide to revitalize its neighborhoods and fix its growing inventory of troubled properties.
A 331-page report, titled “Every Neighborhood Has a Future ... And it Doesn’t Include Blight,” was released earlier this week by the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force (an organization put together by President Obama last fall). Referring to blight as a "cancer," it recommends the removal of 40,000 unsightly properties within five years.
Such an effort, they estimate, would cost $850 million but would help stabilize neighborhoods suffering the domino effects of negligent property owners. Officials say $456 million for the efforts would come from the federal government and other sources. Part of the $394 million gap is anticipated to come from bankruptcy-related cost savings.
The task force was able to make their suggestions thanks to a new database that details Detroit's 380,217 parcels of land and the condition of each one. It was assembled by the Motor City Mapping (MCM) project conducted by a non-profit, Data Driven Detroit, and a local consulting firm, Loveland Technologies.
In addition to 24 other data sets, the bulk of the property information came from 150 volunteer surveyors who spent 10 weeks over the winter recording each building and vacant parcel in their assigned areas.
In a process called "blexting," the surveyors used a mobile app to photograph each property and answer questions about their condition before submitting it to a live-stream feed where associates performed a quality control check on the data.
The final result looks like this:
Out of the 380,000 parcels, MCM identified 40,007 parcels that met the task force's definition of blight:
They also identified parcels at risk for becoming blighted, meaning a site may be in suitable condition today but is either unoccupied, abandoned, or under government ownership. According to the report, there are 38,429 parcels that fit that definition:
Decades of piecemeal demolition efforts have already created a sizable inventory of vacant land all over the city. Some of those have turned into illegal dumping sites; 6,135 according to the report:
According to the task force, demolishing large-scale, non-residential buildings would add another $500 million to $1 billion in demolition costs. But while massive structures like the Packard Plant and Michigan Central Station are internationally known symbols of Detroit's economic decline, these maps make it clear that its Detroit's housing inventory that needs the most urgent attention.
Ninety-eight percent of the city's blight is found in its neighborhoods as opposed to its commercial districts. Large scale non-residential buildings are just 0.7 percent, with half of those structures located in commercial districts:
One of the biggest obstacles to fixing Detroit's blight has been the growing number of foreclosed properties.
Since 2008, more than 60,000 properties in Detroit have been foreclosed on. In hopes of preventing yet more blight, Mayor Mike Duggan and the task force chairs want to see the Wayne County Treasurer's auction modified so that speculators can't buy tax-foreclosed parcels in the city for as little as $500:
As aggressive as the task force's blight removal plan seems, they stress the role of community input. So does the mayor.
Earlier this month, the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA), which has been restaffed and revitalized by Duggan since taking office, began providing a more neighborhood-focused auction process called "Building Detroit."
It's a process that puts up for sale one "fixable" foreclosed house a day to bidders who pass a long list of restrictions, but most importantly, have no history of owning blighted or tax-foreclosed properties. The DLBA has also spent $52 million on fixing and demolishing properties in the six neighborhoods that are part of the the State's Hardest Hit Fund.
The task force recommends in its report that City Hall and the DLBA implement future phases of Motor City Mapping which would consist of a centralized, public database containing MCM and municipal data. It would also let residents "blext" through a public version of the mapping app. According to the Detroit Free Press, mayor Mike Duggan says a public version will be released in phases starting in the next 90 days.
Going forward, they'll also be relying on the new Maximizing Community Impact (MCI) tool which looks at a neighborhood's density, building conditions, mortgage deeds, and age demographics. Through the data, the DLBA can find "tipping point" areas where blight removal would best, and most urgently, stabilize a neighborhood as seen in the task force report:
Not much of this data is necessarily shocking to Detroiters but it does give city officials and community activists an incredibly detailed look at its vacancy problem and answers for how to fix it. Results may take time to notice (and solutions slow to agree upon) but changes for the better are already underway.