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Blight in our community

Week 27 of the occupation

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Blight is the new word of the day. As federal officials left town in the wake of promises to free up money for Detroit, images of burned out houses and falling down structures dominated discussions of our city.

In the selective reporting of mainstream media, we are told Detroit has an unknown number of abandoned houses with estimates ranging between 78,000 and 91,000 homes. The impression is that each of these structures is a charred, teetering skeleton of a house, surrounded by tires and trash.

What is not reported is the accompanying data that tells us the vast majority of these empty houses are in good to very good condition. Many, with little work, could provide a home for people. Putting people in homes, rather than just knocking down structures, would do a lot more to restore our neighborhoods.

Gov. Rick Snyder and his emergency manage,r Kevyn Orr, however, know the power of illusive emergencies, so they quickly moved to appoint a blight task force. Their mission is to knock things down. Most of this knocking down will be done by suburban contractors, who make contributions to Republican, suburban candidates, who make policies that negatively impact Detroit home-owners. Most of this knocking down will follow the usual practice of bulldozing structures into basements, burying precious resources and toxic materials together, and covering it over with dirt that will eventually become home to wild grasses. Most of the $52 million designated for this process will flow out of the city.

Such a process is foolish.  It is fraught with opportunities for corruption. It is dictated by a distorted view of the actual condition of our housing stock and reflects no imagination. Instead of emphasizing demolition, why not build upon the work of some community organizations to deconstruct houses? Why not train churches, neighborhood groups, interested high school classes and block clubs in skills of deconstruction so they can reclaim and recycle resources? Why not establish an aggressive homesteading policy for people to move into homes and live there tax free for five years, thus helping to restore communities? Why not build on local knowledge in neighborhoods about what should be torn down and what should be preserved?  Such policies and practices would increase the wealth of neighborhoods and the people living in them.

Instead, we are told Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and owner of almost every building he can find in downtown Detroit; Roy Roberts, former emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools, where he showed a startling inability to exercise judgment; Glenda Price, who since retiring from Marygrove College has become the ubiquitous stand-in for real community; and Linda Smith, CEO of U-Snap-Bac will join forces with Bill Pulte’s Detroit Blight Authority.

It is hard to imagine a less confidence-inspiring group. Mr. Gilbert, for example, receives a lot of good press for his vision of reshaping Detroit. Often, word on the street is he is a generous man and has done a lot by moving his workforce downtown. But how much of the work of that force has contributed to the foreclosure crisis that swept people out of their homes like a hurricane through predatory lending practices? How has Mr. Gilbert benefitted from the loss of houses that he is now going to help tear down?

At the very least Mr. Gilbert owes the city some public accounting of his role in the foreclosure crisis, his efforts to ensure mortgages are made responsibly and thoughtfully, and his commitment to community life.

Gilbert, Roberts, Price and Smith have not been elected to anything. They have no public accountability to anyone. They have said nothing about placing themselves in roles that circumvent basic democratic processes. There is a blight to the soul that happens in such times that cannot be so easily captured in photographs.

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