When I joined the Indian Village Association board in 2014, one of the first things I did was to start working with the City on eliminating blight. It was very clear that was a herculean task, and one on which there was very little agreement. One of the reasons is that when residents try to direct the process, it focusses on owner occupied structures. If you’re a Detroiter, you know the drill: usually some dingbat who’s been in the neighborhood for a very, very long time, has allowed their house to go to pot. And for pretty much the entirety of that time, there wasn’t the administrative or enforcement follow through for the City to effectively help homeowners direct code enforcement on a sustained basis. Meaning, the best you as a committed do-gooder was that you would go to a meeting downtown with folks from the buildings department (Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department, also known as BSEED), they’d tell you they’d begin working on it, and there would be initial tickets written, but that’s about where it would stop, with little to no enforcement to correct the underlying conditions.
In the past few years, there’s been a very incremental evolution towards a more coherent strategy of making building code enforcement a reality for the first time in a very long while. And the reason for that is that Mayor Mike Duggan has opted to go after targets that are not owner occupied structures. It’s not the natural impulse, but from an administrative and political standpoint, it’s the way to go. By gradually going after ever more categories of derelict buildings, Duggan is very gradually trying to make blight something that isn’t normal in Detroit, and I feel like we are on the cusp of seeing real results on this front.
Nuisance abatement began in 2014. Conducted through the Detroit Land Bank Authority, this program focussed on suing the owners of vacant but salvageable houses. The owner could either turn the structure over to the DLBA, fight the charges, or just fix it up. Usually, the owners would be put on a consent agreement approved by then Judge Robert Colombo from Wayne County Third Circuit Court. Judge Colombo has since retired, but those cases have probably migrated over to someone else’s docket. Nuisance abatement program was commonly referred to by its acronym, NAP, and it was probably one of the first iterations of code enforcement that began making a real difference in the neighborhoods on a scale that was noticeable.
Rental inspections began again last year. The rollout was rocky. About half of the population in Detroit are renters, so this is going to to encompass a very broad section of the housing stock of the city. The program is being staggered by ZIP codes. The process consists of an initial registration, inspection (and reinspection should sufficient violations be found) and final certificate of approval issuance. Because the City doesn’t have enough inspectors on hand to staff this, they have contracted with inspection firms to handle this monumental task. Another facet of this is that the lead testing component of this is pretty onerous for owners. Pretty much any structure built in Detroit before 1978 is going to have some level of lead in it. You can choose two strategies, either get rid of it (astronomically expensive) or to just contain it (usually with paint).
The inspection and lead certification process is expensive. It’s burdensome. And it will probably end up putting some crappy landlords out of business and maybe even a few landlords with good intentions but limited means. My only critique with this program was that there was never an off ramp, so to speak, for some of the results of this program. Meaning, if an inspection takes place, and there’s $20,000 worth of work that needs to be done, which I don’t think is uncommon, the landlord has two options: fix it to comply (and pass the costs off to the tenant, which is normal rental economics) or don’t, and that path, I feel like is far more unknown. So, in many instances, you have cases where the costs of improving the property will put it out of reach to the people that were there, noncompliance is a very fraught scenario. At the end of the day, the rental inspection program was necessary, as renters deserve quality housing, and far too few of them get it. But the initial rollout was always going to be very, very difficult.
Vacant property registrations. Not sure what the back story on this is, but they are suddenly being enforced. In Detroit, it has to meet a minimum threshold of maintenance, and this is just another avenue of continuing enforcement. This seems to have happened relatively recently, and I’ve been on the receiving end of it. The organization for which I work, the Villages Community Development Corporation, owns houses on Seyburn that are, works in progress, charitably speaking. I feel badly about it, and we should get our act together, and renovate and sell them.
Automobile uses tire shops, auto storage lots. This is more of a zoning ordinance enforcement measure, but the overall impact it’ll have is to make it so that it’ll clean up the look and feel of various commercial streets (Mack, Grand River, Fenkell, etc.) where there’s a lot of unlicensed auto uses (storage, tire sales, repairs, used car sales) that don’t currently meet code. I’ll be interested to see how this plays out.
And lastly, there’s been some reforms put in place in BSEED that underpin some basic common sense initiatives. The first is that they’ve hired an attorney, Jessica Parker, to be the Chief Enforcement Officer (CEO). The City sure loves their chief titles, and some of them are pretty silly, but this isn’t on that I’ll begrudge them. They’ve also gotten rid of a number of inspectors in the recent past. These are guys that had been there for decades and were not going to play well with new reforms or changes. And there’s also a group in the department that are busy coming up with new metrics and actually trying to follow up with how enforcement is tracked, measured and analyzed to see if what BSEED is doing makes any sense or is having an effect.