Fixing the Neighborhoods: Part I

‘You’re not from here, you don’t know what it’s like dealing with the City, and, besides, they’re not taking care of their stuff,’ an angry neighbor was busy informing me after they learned that we were asking for residential blight enforcement in Indian Village.  After moving to the neighborhood, I joined the Indian Village Association board, and began trying to make myself useful by asking for building code inspections.  This neighbor, however, was having none of it.

Indian Village, like many neighborhoods in Detroit, needs a lot of work.  While it’s charming and quaint and has lots right with it, including, again, like many neighborhoods in Detroit, amazing residents, the physical conditions need work.  Naturally, when I arrived, I decided that we needed to work on blight, and the response of that one neighbor wasn’t uncommon.  While I didn’t agree with the reasoning, that because the City wasn’t taking care of their infrastructure, residents should get a pass on the condition of their properties, their was a valid point in there.  So instead of us just doing what we wanted to do, we listened, and came up with other infrastructure projects that both residents and the City could work on, in some cases together.

So, a colleague and neighbor of mine, Elizabeth Findeis, began a program of clearing out every single alley with the help of the Department of Public Works (DPW) and the Greater Detroit Resources Recovery Authority, who was kind enough to provide lots of free dumpsters.  We engaged DTE to come back and clear out tree branches from the power lines.  We worked with DPW to repair sidewalks, which is actually happening now, at no cost to homeowners, and they were a joy to work with.  Other elements, like getting storm drains and fire hydrants fixed with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and residential code enforcement with Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department have been a bit bumpier, but I’m confident that we’ll get them done eventually.  And throughout, the Forestry Division of the General Services Department (GSD) has been fantastic to work with in removing dead trees.  And it’s not just even about tree removal, we’re working with GSD to add trees as well.

So, after we addressed some of the infrastructure issues, we returned to our original goal: blight.  We decided to work on the most severe cases of blight, and in concert with the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA), managed to have them seize a house that was literally falling down.  It wasn’t occupied, and it had successfully evaded code enforcement for years.  We had finally reached the right mix.  Lots of City services with using City agencies to target the most severe cases of blight that weren’t safe and dragging down property  values.

It was at this point that I began trying to scale some of what it is that we were doing in Indian Village and apply it to all of the Villages.  There were going to be other needs, such as removal of illegal dumping, boarding up of vacant properties that are open to trespass and demolition of fire damaged properties.  And I began testing that out in the North Village (that area along Van Dyke between Kercheval and Mack, organized by a group of residents who wanted a more distinct neighborhood identity than just being lumped in with Islandview).  The DLBA was amazing at demolitions.  DPW was great at removal of illegal dumping.  And while we haven’t seen any of the board ups taking place yet, I’m confident that we’ll see some soon from GSD.

Now, we had something that was coming together.  It was a coherent, workable plan that produced an immediate and tangible impact by compressing the delivery schedule and geographic footprint of how City services would be directed.  Start in those areas where the City is already doing a lot of planning, where investment is present, and watch them grow.  And when I began to talk about this to folks in the East Village and Islandview, there was, however, reticence.  The thinking was that code enforcement, the part that would complement the investments in City infrastructure, would be used as a pretext to drive folks out.

Again, while I didn’t agree with the sentiment, I understood it.  So, we began working with the Housing Revitalization Department (HRD), specifically Jason Friedman and Beth Kmetz to layer in a more robust resources page to the program.  Meaning, we want to make those resources available to all Detroiters.  Tax foreclosure prevention, homeownership programs, zero interest loans, all of these were vital to keeping residents in place and helping to get them the resources necessary to cope with some of the changes that improvement in the neighborhoods would bring.  And even in reviewing some of the items on the list, I suggested to Jason that they ought to include assistance for utilities (given everything we’ve hear about challenges with water) and lead abatement programs (again, given everything we’ve heard about that).

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So, we had a program: City services, complemented by making more resources available, rounded out with code enforcement on severe blight, that would gradually escalate.  And even then, I began road showing this to various community folks who were extremely helpful in making suggestions.  Edythe Ford from MACC Development, Jeanine Hatcher and Jennine Spencer from Genesis Hope, Barry Randolph and Wally Gilbert from Church of the Messiah and Sandra Stahl, a Pingree Park resident and former Villager all gave amazing insights as to how we could do a better job of packaging this and conveying it to residents.

If you’re interested in reading the whole plan, click to read it.  It’s mostly graphic.  A lot of work went into it from a number of different people.  My hope for it is that neighborhoods and developers can come together, and, in concert with the City and its agencies, take this as a template for how we can strengthen the communities to link up the places and the people in our City.  The most encouraging sign to date is that there are very capable individuals all throughout the Villages that are responding very positively to this vision of rebuilding.  Particularly in the West Village and in Islandview, there’s a lot of momentum, and we will be looking forward to seeing how this program rolls forward in 2018.  If you want to talk about it, drop me a line, and I’d be glad to chat or make a presentation to your neighborhood group or association.


Fixing Blight

‘We can’t do that for your neighborhood, because then every neighborhood would want it,’ a flustered City official told me.

‘Wait, you can’t come out and write tickets to negligent building owners every month so they finally fix up their neighborhoods?’  I asked.

‘Right.  If everyone asked for it, then we wouldn’t be able to do anything,’ said flustered City worker informed me.

This is one of the most basic functions of a City.  Enforcing the building code is a pretty straightforward undertaking, and it’s central to how Detroit should ultimately rebuild itself.   And while I don’t dispute that the Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) is understaffed, there’s relatively straightforward ways that BSEED can make a bigger impact with the staff they have on hand.

  1. ‘Clerical is backed up.’  This is something that we hear a lot when I ask about how it’s coming with inspections in Indian Village.  What it means is that inspectors are still writing stuff up on paper in the field, and then handing it off to clerical staff who then enter it into computers.  Inspections should be done on tablets with a wireless connection in the field, thus eliminating the need for clerical workers (who could then possibly be retrained to be something else, say inspectors perhaps?), would make a lot of sense.
  2. ‘If everyone in the City asked for it, we wouldn’t be able to give them inspections.’  This is the refrain I’m the most tired of hearing.  The fact of the matter is that not every neighborhood in the City is asking for it.  Another fact of the matter is that the City, bless their hearts, do things in a sectional way sometimes.  Cases in point: Hardest Hit Funds, what the City uses for demolitions, are not applied citywide.  The targeted areas for the addition of City funded multi-unit housing developments is not being done citywide.  The nuisance abatement program from the Detroit Land Bank Authority is not being done citywide.  There are many programs the City starts that don’t apply everywhere.  Residential code enforcement can be one of them.
  3. ‘Well, we can’t do blight inspections on detached, single family homes, because folks can’t afford to make repairs.’  Not in Indian Village.  They sure as hell can.  And likely in the West Village as well.  And the great thing about starting building code inspections in areas that are already stable and doing better economically than the city as a whole, when you start in areas like Indian Village and the West Village, word spreads, and folks around them, such as in Islandview, the East Village and Pingree Park will probably begin correcting violations before inspectors even show up.  Word spreads fast.

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Detroiters shouldn’t have to look at cars parked on yards and broken windows.

At the end of the day, this actually isn’t even about enforcing on every single building code violation.  In each neighborhood, you select one major violation per block, and then you cite the homeowner on it.  Pick the severe stuff, nothing trifling like flaking paint.  I’m talking about collapsing porches, holes in roofs, broken windows, and the like.  Once you target one case, and the City demonstrates that they’re serious about improving the quality of the building stock, homeowners will comply.  You target a few of the most severe cases that everyone can agree on, and the vast majority of people will begin to comply without getting a correction notice.

In all of this, the criticism of this policy that rings the loudest is how you actually try to preserve residents in place.  The application of the building code should not be used as a pretext for displacement.  While cities are never static, there’s always people moving in and out, as is the hallmark of any healthy urban setting, water shutoffs and tax foreclosure have already decimated predominantly working class black communities.  The City should proceed with the recognition that while the application of the building code itself should not further displace residents.  I want to take a minute to applaud the Housing Revitalization Department for putting together lists of resources in the form of what homeowners can obtain as it relates to foreclosure prevention, lead abatement, grants, low interest loans, and assistance for seniors, veterans and families.

The path forward is clear.  The City does indeed have the ability to embrace residential code enforcement on detached, single family homes in the neighborhoods.  The City has even done some of the ground work on how to make sure that those resources are available to homeowners who may face challenges to staying in place.  And there are tactics the City can embrace to punch well above their weight with respect to the resources they have on hand.  Now, as with anything, it’s just a question of doing it.