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The Motor City's Blight Busters

With a bottom-up approach, Detroit is making surprising progress toward turning around its neighborhoods.

When it comes to city and neighborhood decay, the story is not simply one of industrial decline in the Rust Belt heartland. As Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent New York Times column, the big divide is "between strong communities and weak communities," and those that are making it enjoy "diverse adaptive coalitions" that create success from the bottom up.

Detroit may long have served as a symbol of urban decline, but it has taken some remarkably effective steps to rejuvenate blighted neighborhoods and the city as a whole. Two examples, both relying heavily on bottom-up approaches, are contributing to an unfolding success story.

Prior to 2014, and for at least a 20-year period, very little investment had been made in Detroit's street-lighting system, and it was in a serious state of disrepair. How bad was it? The estimate was that 40 percent of the street lights weren't working for a variety of reasons including copper theft, vandalism, bulb outages and lack of funds to pay for repairs.

State legislation created a Public Lighting Authority for the city with both the power to issue bonds and a funding stream from the city's utility user tax. In three years' time, more than 65,000 street lights were replaced, and the city's nighttime image was transformed. The project was completed on schedule and under budget, and "today we are a national leader, as the first major U.S. city to be entirely lit by LED lights," wrote the authority's chair, Lorna Thomas, in its 2016 annual report.

Dell Young of the Charlevoix Village Association described the change in more personal terms: "My neighbors were talking about leaving because the lights weren't working," he wrote. "Now my neighbors say, 'Maybe I can stay here now, because the lights are back on.'"

Housing blight was another visible sign of Detroit's decay. An estimated 78,000 structures, some 29 percent of all of those in the city, were in need of demolition or other intervention to restore neighborhoods, attract investment and end decades of decline. Today Detroit is running the largest blight-removal program of its kind in the nation. Tens of millions of dollars in state and federal funds are critical for the turnaround, but so is innovation by the city and a variety of stakeholders who are putting the funds to work more effectively through an online technology platform, the Detroit Demolition Tracker.

It's another example of the impact of a bottom-up approach. Brian Farkas, director of special projects for the Detroit Building Authority, explained in an interview that as recently as 2012 residents were not in the loop on the demolitions. There was a paper-based system with information limited to door hangers that included little more than a phone number to call for information. Demolitions weren't focused on specific neighborhoods but were taking place in scattered patterns throughout the city, which reduced the visual impact and impeded neighborhood revitalization efforts.

The Demolition Tracker upgraded both data inputs and outputs. Residents can type in their address and find an array of information about what is happening in the immediate block and neighborhood. "We were striving to give citizens an understanding of what's happening in their neighborhood," Farkas explained. "This was best done through map images rather than raw data."

The demolitions, Farkas noted, are erasing the underlying cause of "blight flight" and proving to be the foundation of rebirth for these neighborhoods. Research has shown that removing blighted structures not only raises the values of the housing that remains but also produces far-reaching effects. Where property values are rising, crime, unemployment and failing education all improve. Every blighted house that is knocked down, Farkas said, makes it easier to solve broader social problems.

So is Detroit truly on the rebound? Clearly things are moving in the right direction. Mayor Mike Duggan says the city is seeing its first period of growth in 50 to 60 years. Turning around neighborhoods in a city that suffered decades of neglect isn't easy. But by rehabilitating blighted neighborhoods, house by house and light by light, Detroit is showing that it understands what it takes to build a new future.

Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic
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