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Does Demolition Equal Progress?

Clearing out blight has its benefits, but it can also erase crucial assets.

blight detroit
(David Kidd)
When it comes to blight removal, Detroit has made something of a name for itself. Since 2014, following bankruptcy and a large federal aid package, the city has demolished 13,340 structures, with plans to knock down tens of thousands more. The demolition has been highlighted alongside restored streetlights and a revived downtown as examples of Detroit’s comeback under Mayor Mike Duggan.  

But is demolishing a bunch of empty buildings really progress? I found myself asking this while exploring the city during a recent stay. On one hand, there are good arguments for demolition. There are still shocking levels of blight, which decreases surrounding property values, attracts criminals (including arsonists who endanger the already overburdened fire department) and can leave a psychological scar, especially for children who grow up there. 

On the other hand, Detroit could come back. Contrary to popular perception, the declining city sits within a generally successful region. In 2016, metro Detroit ranked 10th among the nation’s 20 largest metros in GDP growth rate. Of the 10 largest municipalities in Greater Detroit, six have increased their populations since 2010. So if a “great inversion” occurs there like it has elsewhere, there’d be immediate increases in citywide wealth. 

This is especially true in Detroit, where many empty homes and buildings are examples of well-known architectural styles, including Midwestern Foursquare and European Modernist. If there was money to restore them, they’d sell at premiums. This has already happened with historic buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C.’s formerly blighted neighborhoods. But by bulldozing its abandoned buildings, Detroit permanently eradicates a potential long-term asset. 

Fortunately, the city recognizes this. Much of the abandoned stock now sits with the Detroit Land Bank Authority, a public agency that, through aggressive tax foreclosure, owns nearly 97,000 parcels. While many structures are still being demolished, many others are being sold. Since 2014, the authority has sold off 2,900 homes and 8,500 vacant parcels. A majority of the buyers have been black city residents who buy the lots next to their homes, sometimes for $100. Currently, another 5,600 properties are either for sale or being prepped for future auction blocks. 

“If we can sell a property before renovation, we’re going to do that,” says Saskia Thompson, executive director of the authority. This approach, she says, costs less money and time. Whether a property is demolished or sold depends on its present condition, how long it’s been empty and where it’s located. Many far-out structures, for example, have sat abandoned for decades and are often the first to be razed. Blight within the bustling downtown and Midtown neighborhoods, however, usually goes untouched. While such buildings are empty now, they sit in promising neighborhoods, meaning they could have significant value if Detroit revives.  

A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at scott@marketurbanismreport.com or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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