From the brick stoop of his white two-story house on the corner of Scott and Dubois on Detroit's northeast side, Pleas Taylor used to look out at the skeletons of burned-out, crumbling houses, hollow trees, and waist-high weeds that snared plastic bags and provided too much cover. The vacant houses "were too available to drug addicts and prostitutes. And you were always afraid kids would get abducted," says Taylor, taking a drag of his cigarette. "You can't supply a place for ignorance to hide."
Hiding spots are hard to find these days on Taylor's block. During a 10-day span starting January 28, a demolition crew razed the abandoned buildings and overgrown vegetation on his block and nine others. Their work was part of a pilot project by the Detroit Blight Authority, a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating abandoned buildings within the city.
The flat, empty plots that now make up Taylor's neighborhood would be considered untilled farmland in other parts of the United States. But as Brian Farkas, the Blight Authority's executive director, and Joseph Sgroi, a Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn partner who is the nonprofit's outside counsel, drive the perimeter of the cleared area, they see more than soil and stones. In Detroit, a cleared lot is one less target for arson and one less call to the fire or police department in a near-bankrupt city where 70 percent of the 11,000 fires each year happen in vacant structures and public safety services eat up about half of the $1 billion annual budget.
Blight isn't just an eyesore, says Sgroi, a corporate, bankruptcy, and restructuring partner, "it's a public health and safety issue." Adds Farkas, a former assistant state attorney general: "We think that if we fix [the blight], everything else we do in this city will become so much easier. Our outlook is 'let's focus on it now, solve it, and move on.' "
As residents leave Detroit—since 1950, the city's population has fallen by more than 50 percent, to about 700,000—abandoned buildings have become a problem. "A vacant house is vulnerable to criminal activity or someone trying to torch it. This will be a vicious cycle until we can stop depopulation," says Karla Henderson, group executive of planning and facilities for Mayor Dave Bing. The city wants to address all 38,000 homes currently in its Dangerous Building Inventory, but each demolition costs between $8,500 and $10,000. In that regard, Henderson says, the Blight Authority could be a game-changer. The nonprofit can tear down houses for $5,000 each—nearly half of what the city pays—by addressing large swaths of blight at once. The cost of demolition equipment is largely the same whether you're ripping down one house or 10, Sgroi says, so why not do 10?
Sgroi and Farkas, former football teammates at Detroit Central Catholic High School, and their friend Bill Pulte, chief executive officer at Pulte Capital Partners LLC and grandson of the founder of PulteGroup Inc., the largest U.S. home builder by revenue, conceived of the project over Girl Scout cookies and beer in Sgroi's basement in the summer of 2012. All three were concerned about Detroit's blight problem; Farkas was especially worried after reading a Detroit Free Press article about the dangers that schoolchildren faced when walking past abandoned buildings. Together they hatched an idea to eliminate blight through individual and corporate donations. While PulteGroup is not involved in the project, the Blight Authority wanted to take the same high-efficiency, low-cost approach to home demolition that the company uses in home construction. It "perfected mass construction of homes," Sgroi says. "The authority wanted to reverse-engineer that process."
Once Pulte, who serves as chairman of the Blight Authority, helped secure city approval for a pilot program, Sgroi tackled the legal aspects of getting the Blight Authority off the ground. A native Detroiter, Sgroi has contributed 125 pro bono hours to the authority starting in late December. He spent most of that time obtaining the Internal Revenue Service approvals that the authority needed to gain nonprofit status. He also addressed one of the bigger hurdles that the authority faced: getting tear-down approvals from the lots' owners. After tracking down the owners by cross-checking tax, title, and electric company records, the authority approached gaining access to homes and yards the way relief agencies do after a natural disaster—with a right-to-enter form, drafted by Sgroi, that homeowners sign, granting the nonprofit authorization to access the property and remove hazardous debris. "Not only was the process smooth and easy, the owners were enthusiastic about the work that would be done," Sgroi says.
In the 10 blocks of the pilot area near Taylor's house, there were only 10 structures, including two abandoned churches, that needed to come down. Eight homes that were still inhabited, including Taylor's, were untouched. The rest of the land was vacant except for dead trees, illegally dumped garbage, and sagging fences, most of which enclosed nothing but weeds. The neighborhood's bright spot, Detroit Edison Public School Academy, makes up the southwest border of the 10-block area. On the area's northeast boundary is a post office. "It's just that space in the middle that was a problem," Farkas says.
It took a 15-person demolition crew 10 days to remove the structures and overgrowth from the area. "Most of the houses just needed a knock, and they crumbled," Sgroi says. Despite their flimsiness, each house produced 30–40 tons of debris, 90 percent of which was recycled, Farkas says.
The demolition's impact was almost immediate. According to the Detroit Police Department's crime mapping tool, there were eight crimes reported within a half-mile of Taylor's home in December 2012, before the demolition. In April that number had dropped to five. Expand the search to one mile, and the crime figures are 60 and 33, respectively. Getting rid of the empty buildings "knocked out the opportunity for crime to happen," says inspector Gary Sroka of the Detroit Police Department, who oversees the area.
The neighborhood went "from blight to bright," says Willie Williams, manager of customer service at the area's post office. Williams, a 27-year post office veteran who retired in June, says vagrants would find refuge in vacant buildings across the street and often would break into his customers' cars. The post office itself was broken into four times between 2010 and 2011, he says. "They cleared all that out," Williams says. "It's beautiful."
To an outsider, the slab of land that remains isn't particularly impressive, but Farkas and Sgroi show it off as if it were a manicured lawn. "We uncovered sidewalks that hadn't been walked on in years," Farkas says from behind the wheel of his black SUV. What happens to the land now is up to its owners. Henderson says that the area might be suitable for lofts, given its proximity to the Eastern District Market, a public food market that draws big weekend crowds.
The authority's goal is to eliminate the 38,000 abandoned homes in Detroit strategically—by razing large chunks of blight at once and leveling individual vacant homes. Although the nonprofit focuses on the homes of residents who have left Detroit, it is being seen as something of a savior for the Detroiters who remain. After the success of the pilot project, the authority has been bombarded by emails from residents asking that it clear the blight from their neighborhood next, Farkas says.
One area on the authority's list is the Brightmoor neighborhood, where nearly 30 percent of homes were vacant as of 2010, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments breakdown of U.S. Census data. It lost 36 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010. Many parts of the once-thriving working-class community look more like a landfill than a neighborhood, thanks to illegal dumpers who have off-loaded old tires and trash, undeterred by "dumpers will be shot" signs that the few remaining residents have nailed to telephone poles. On one corner, metal scrappers have ripped a chain link fence off its posts. Brightmoor's blight is so bad that developers and homeowners in the Rosedale neighborhood, two miles away, are being forced to lower their asking prices because appraisals of properties there include nearby Brightmoor houses as comparisons. Blight "spreads like cancer," Sgroi says.
Pleas Taylor didn't ask the Blight Authority to clear his neighborhood of vacant homes, but he's happy that it did. "It's a good thing they took all that down," he says. He's watched a lot of people leave the neighborhood, but his family is staying put, he says. The names of his wife's grandparents, Lee and James, who bought the home 70 years ago, are etched into the front sidewalk. "It's good that we don't have to worry so much about [children] playing outside," he says, nodding to his niece, who tugged on the tire swing in the house's fenced-in side yard.
"Blight contributes to the sense that no one cares," Farkas says, "When you have that sense, crime is rampant." Once you remove the physical symptoms that no one cares, you can start to see signs that people do.