Might Makes Blight by Andy H.

Might Makes Blight by Andy H.

In May, the Metro Times told the story of a tenant at 1515 Broadway in downtown Detroit, who woke in the middle of the night when a piece of the cornice from the crumbling Wurlitzer Building next door:

Something had crashed partway through the ceiling, cracking several rafters and breaking one completely, sending it through one of the oversized windows that look out on the People Mover as it rolls past.

Up on the roof, he could see that a block of stone weighting (sic) 40 or 50 pounds had come hurtling down 12 stories from the top of the adjacent Wurlitzer Building.

The managing member of the company that owns the Wurlitzer has been ignoring tickets and complaints from the city of Detroit since at least 2004.  This week, a Wayne County judge heard the city’s most recent complaint, filed shortly before the incident in May:

Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert Colombo ordered the company that owns the “dangerous” Wurlitzer Building on Broadway to fix the problems within 90 days or face contempt of court charges, chastising one of the owners for a “total lack of responsibility.”

“He has basically ignored these violations,” Colombo said. A city building inspector has cited Paul Curtis, the managing member of 1509 Broadway LLC, three times since October 2008 with emergency violations on the Wurlitzer… None of the problems was repaired, according to a building inspector.

Blight like this persists partly because the owners responsible for it have friends in high places to protect them.  We learned from the Detroit News that the managing member of the company that owns the Wurlitzer Building, Paul Curtis, “is married to Wayne County Circuit Judge Daphne Means Curtis, who records indicate has had an interest in the building. Judge Curtis did not return a call Friday for comment.”

The Wurlitzer action comes as part of a more aggressive approach to blight from the city: “The mayor is enlisting collection agencies for those who owe for delinquent blight violations and utilizing an ordinance that requires owners of vacant property to register with the city…”  Officials at other levels of government are stepping in, too. Earlier this week, State Senator Tupac Hunter, who represents part of Detroit, introduced a bill that would “ban those who owe blight fines or back taxes from participating in county-sponsored auctions where land goes for as little as $500…”  Hunter’s bill follows Wayne County Commissioner Bernard Parker’s proposal “to combat land speculation by banning tax delinquents from buying property at county tax auctions.”

There’s plenty of doubt surrounding the future of each, alas. Of Senator Hunter’s bill, we are told,

The prospects… are uncertain, and a lawyer for a prominent speculator said he doubts it would work.

Midland-based attorney Nicholas LeFevre said profits from the auction generate money to replace unpaid taxes. He argued that Detroit already owns thousands of idle, blighted properties that generate no taxes.

“If the city had a comprehensive development plan, that wouldn’t be a bad idea. But they don’t,” said LeFevre, who represents Michael G. Kelly, a Grosse Pointe Woods investor profiled in The News for using the tax sale to become the largest private property owner in the city at that time.

LeFevre argued the legislation would rely on city records of blight fines, which he said are often based on faulty information…

Chief Deputy Treasurer David Szymanski… has also said a ban could be difficult to enforce because those who owe back taxes could form new firms to buy at the auction.

Commissioner Parker’s proposal faces the same implementation challenge:

Antoine M. Hayes, who bought more than 400 properties in October with several partners, said the proposal won’t work, despite its good intentions. Hayes predicted that investors who owe taxes will form new companies to buy properties… It also won’t address an influx of out-of-state buyers that some observers say contribute to a cycle of blight.

It certainly would be worth trying to come up with an effective way to block delinquent owners;  the News cites a University of Michigan study that “found that since 2002, 11 buyers have bought 24 percent of tax-auctioned parcels.”

City Hall has traditionally has exacerbated the problem rather than helping. Detroit News reporter Mike Wilkinson notes, “Detroit is believed to have more taxpayer-owned land than any other city in the United States, and the parcels produce no taxes, cost money to maintain and are often blighted themselves…”  Wilkinson describes how the city has historically arranged sweetheart land deals for speculators that ended up failing.  And then there’s Panglossian apathy from officials like Mr. Szymanski, who “said this month his office is open to reforms but the system ‘so far has worked.’”  Clearly it hasn’t.

The heroes in this story include everyone pitching in to help clean up some of the mess.  Among them:

  • The Detroit News, whose ongoing coverage of delinquent landlords in Detroit has showed it can still crank out an investigation that makes a real policy difference;
  • American taxpayers:  Highland Park is using nearly $14 million in federal funds to demolish over 300 blighted buildings in that city;
  • A Detroit-based initiative of the AFL-CIO, Good Jobs Now, is coordinating volunteers to clean up blighted properties owned by Matt Moroun as part of a broader campaign to get Moroun to pay for the clean up himself, creating local jobs in the process;
  • Neighborhood groups.  I especially admire the ballsy block club on the northeast side that was profiled by the News in May.  Neighbors try to contact the homeowners before taking matters into their own hands, but if that fails they just go ahead, cleaning and boarding up abandoned homes nearby.

I’d like to see a more encouraging and collaborative, less bureaucratic response from the City:

Mayor Dave Bing’s staff doesn’t endorse the block club efforts, saying the mayor has made blight a priority — demolishing about 3,000 houses and boarding 6,000 last year.

“While the need is great, it is important to note that the city has been responsive to requests for board-ups,” Kim James, director of the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department wrote…

Neighbors who care make a difference on the micro level.  Supergay Detroit recently posted about the decline in conditions that led him to move out of Lafayette Towers:

(T)o me “ghetto” in Detroit is primarily about lowered standards and the disastrous effect of just not caring.

In Detroit the rate of entropy is highly accelerated. It takes vigilance and dedication (along with a decent helping of good luck) to keep something nice. Just try ignoring a vulnerable situation and see what you get: a disintegrating train station; an entire housing project, fully scrapped; another demolished historic building; a RoboCop statue. The lowest common denominator usually calls the shots here. When you look at the areas of town that are defying the pull toward chaos you see areas that fight to keep standards high – the co-operatives of Lafayette Park, or Indian Village, or Corktown, or Midtown…

On the macro level, a recent Brookings Institution brief describes how state regulations, like those introduced by Senator Hunter, can make a difference.  One of its co-authors, Jennifer Vey, writes in the New Republic,

(W)eak and antiquated state laws–on tax foreclosure, land banking, code enforcement, and other areas–can have huge influence on what properties get redeveloped (or at least mowed) under what time horizons.

While many of these laws may seem trifling or arcane, they can be a huge burden for the municipalities governed by them, as they can hamstring local leaders’ ability to minimize distressed properties’ costs… as well as their ability to repurpose them for tax generating development or other uses…

As state leaders continue to dig under their figurative couch cushions for spare change… they should also look for ways to help their local (and thus ultimately state) economies through legal and policy reforms that don’t need to cost a dime…

Governor Snyder has repeatedly stressed the importance of strong cities to a stronger Michigan.  Helping to shepherd bills like Senator Hunter’s into law, and making sure they have teeth, seem like a cost-effective way to show he’s serious.

Andy H. blogs at Motown To TreeTown.