Despite demolition efforts, blight spreads undetected throughout Detroit's neighborhoods

Left to rot

Nov 14, 2018 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge According to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, these houses are not blighted. The agency even believes people are living in some of them. A nine-month Metro Times investigation found hundreds of houses like this. - Violet Ikonomova
Violet Ikonomova
According to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, these houses are not blighted. The agency even believes people are living in some of them. A nine-month Metro Times investigation found hundreds of houses like this.

On a weekday morning in July, Barbara and Clifton Epps sat side-by-side on the front porch of their northwest Detroit home, eating from a plate of cherries as they looked out onto their street. A heatwave had gripped the city, and the pair were enjoying some final moments of fresh air before climbing temperatures would force them indoors. Barbara, in a matching teal blouse and pant set, explained how she'd taken great care to make this a comfortable place for the two of them. Roses and daffodils lined the white porch fence. Soon, she'd have the concrete steps replaced.

The image the couple presented stood in stark contrast to the one they were taking in. The Epps' well-kept bungalow is one of only about a dozen occupied houses left on their block near Six Mile and Livernois. The stretch of Monica Street is otherwise dominated by blight — abandoned houses with missing siding and crumbling brick, some of whose boarded doors have been torn off, granting entry to trespassers. Tires, empty beer cans, and other debris litter front yards and driveways. "No dumping" signs dot several vacant lots where homes once stood.

Clifton, who helps tend to the block by mowing lawns and picking up trash, is intimately familiar with the conditions at each house.

"There's beavers in this one right here," he said, nodding across the street at a decaying, boarded house obscured by brush. "I hope you have a strong stomach," he said, pointing further down, "because you gonna see a lot of raccoon turds up there. And don't even go up on that porch 'cause you gonna fall right down into solid ground."

"I think a guy in New York City owns that one — but he's not doing nothing to it," he continued, pointing to another. Vandals got to the house next door when it became vacant seven years ago, taking the furnace and kitchen and bathroom fixtures. "It's nothing but an empty shell now," he said, "and it needs to be cleaned out."

Clifton's knowledge of the state of each property far surpasses that of those tasked with removing the blight. According to an assessment by the Detroit Land Bank Authority, the vacant house across the street — with its boarded window, missing gutters, peeling paint, and knee-high weeds — is "unlikely to be blighted," and therefore does not meet its definition of being abandoned. The boarded red one five doors down, whose contents are spilling from a wide-open entryway, is also listed as "unlikely to be blighted." So is a nearby vacant, boarded house with a buckling roof and unfastening siding, where a board that once covered the front doorway has been cast aside.

Based on an assessment made by the Land Bank a year before our visit, eight of the block's 13 vacant, boarded, and in many cases deteriorating houses were deemed "unlikely to be blighted" — meaning they do not count toward the city's assessment of 22,000 total abandoned houses. Two additional boarded houses weren't flagged by the Land Bank as vacant at all. In evidence that the estimate is not accurate enough to inform any of the Land Bank's decisions, at least one such vacant and "unlikely to be blighted" house had apparently been in such poor shape that it warranted demolition.

The situation is not unique to this block. A Metro Times investigation into the Land Bank's understanding of the scope of abandonment in the city suggests the agency has grossly underestimated the problem, raising concerns about just how much blight is left to tackle as it taps into its final allotment of federal demolition dollars. Based on a nine-month survey of more than 400 randomly selected vacant houses classified by the Land Bank as "unlikely to be blighted," the city could be dealing with about 40 percent more abandoned houses than it believes.

Lending credence to that notion is a discovery by another group that's been visiting Detroit's vacant houses. According to Crystal Perkins, the city official spearheading an effort to board almost all of the city's empty houses with blown-out windows or doors, crews will have to seal an estimated total 30,000 houses — 19,000 more than initially advertised.

The vast discrepancy between the Land Bank's assessment and the reality on the ground is largely the result of inadequate data. No wide-scale property survey has been conducted in the five years since the Land Bank's $260 million demolition program began, and no survey is planned for the future. Instead, the Land Bank is measuring abandonment with an apparently flawed data calculation developed in-house. As a result, there may be no way to truly know if the city and its wrecking crews have gained the upper hand on blight — or if they're merely playing a losing game of catch-up as vacant properties deteriorate and multiply. And without that information, the city can't know what additional resources may be needed to address the problem.

According to one city employee with knowledge of the situation, the lack of up-to-date, ground-level data is hampering daily demolition operations, too. The employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says they do not believe the city and Land Bank can strategically target the best houses for demolition with their limited information. Put another way, the city is unable to maximize its finite resources by ensuring it stops the greatest number of new blighted houses from forming.

There may be no way to truly know if the city and its wrecking crews have gained the upper hand on blight — or if they're merely playing a losing game of catch-up as vacant properties deteriorate and multiply.

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The Land Bank declined to make anyone available for an interview for this story. In a series of emailed statements sent by a spokeswoman, the agency pushed back on the idea that its demolition program isn't having the greatest possible impact, citing rising property values citywide. It also said it remains confident in the accuracy of its blight probability model, despite evidence to the contrary.

When we told Barbara and Clifton that the house across the street had been deemed "unlikely to be blighted," their responses were terse.

"Wrong," Clifton said.

"Wrong," Barbara echoed.

"I don't think they're really concerned about it, to tell you the truth," Clifton said. "I think it's just a big excuse for them to leave it standing, as is."

Fudging the numbers

In his March State of the City address, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan stood before a projection of a 2014 news report to show just how far the city had come in its fight against blight. "Left to rot," the headline read. "Detroit's 40,000 abandoned and empty buildings awaiting demolition as decaying city nears bankruptcy." The number of abandoned houses was now down to 22,000, Duggan claimed, thanks to ongoing demolition efforts and home rehabs made possible by rising property values. On stage, he appeared to rely on simple subtraction to arrive at this new abandonment total: 15,000 abandoned houses had been leveled since 2014 and another 3,000 had been bought and rehabbed.

As it turns out, however, Duggan's claim was not underpinned by basic math, but rather a data calculation developed by the Land Bank to determine how many houses are abandoned without requiring that anyone physically visit them. The information, the Land Bank says, is needed to "benchmark" the progress of its demolition program.

But based on our assessment and feedback from a number of urban property experts, the benchmark is likely painting far too rosy a picture of property conditions in Detroit.

By the Land Bank's definition, an abandoned house is a vacant one that also exhibits "outward signs of blight." To determine whether a house is blighted, it runs a calculation based on a variety of data including energy usage, real estate sales, and outstanding blight tickets. Signs of vacancy are a point, while signs of occupancy are a negative point. The higher the point total on a house, the more likely it is to be considered blighted, and by extension, abandoned.

Last year, the Land Bank characterized a little more than half of the city's 48,000 vacant houses as abandoned. Notably, the number produced by the calculation, which the Land Bank says it runs at least annually, consistently matches the number of abandoned houses there would be had no additional vacancies occurred since 2014. The likelihood that this is the case is slim: More than 23,000 occupied properties entered the Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction between 2014 and the time of Duggan's speech, and many wound up in the hands of speculators who let them deteriorate. Detroit's population also declined during that period, with the most pronounced losses in neighborhoods made up of single-family homes.

Indeed, based on our sample survey, the Land Bank could be overlooking thousands of abandoned houses, as its calculation appears biased toward producing positive results. Of the 406 vacant and “unlikely to be blighted” properties we randomly surveyed, 178 — or 44 percent — were blighted or had been demolished. By contrast, there were far fewer errors on the other side of the equation: Houses deemed “likely to be blighted” almost always were. Of the 180 of those parcels we surveyed, only 15 were in good condition — in line with the Land Bank’s margin of error of plus or minus 10 percent.

We found that the Land Bank’s assessment had entirely missed an additional 30 vacant and blighted houses. In some cases this may have been the result of new vacancies in the year since the Land Bank ran the calculation and produced an address list. In most cases, however, the properties appeared to have been vacant and in poor condition for years, based on a review of available archive Google Street View images.

For our survey, we defined blight based on visual indicators outlined in Michigan state law and the Detroit ordinance governing “dangerous buildings.” Under those definitions, a house can be blighted if it’s a public nuisance, not maintained to code, or open to the elements or trespass. The vacant and "unlikely to be blighted" houses we surveyed had an average value of $58,500, based on home sale prices last year in the 17 zip codes we visited. That value is slightly higher than last year's citywide average of $55,000.

If extended to the city overall, our survey suggests Detroit could be dealing with at least 30,000 abandoned houses.

The official overseeing the board-ups of empty houses not slated for demolition within a year arrived at a similar estimate. Perkins told Metro Times she anticipates crews will board a total of about 30,000 houses over the next three years — nearly triple the 11,000 the city initially said it anticipated needing to board. Houses being boarded, she says, have at least one first-floor window or door that is broken or missing — meaning they've been left open to the elements or trespass. At this point, crews have covered less than half of the city and found 12,000 houses to seal. The $9 million program is now a year behind schedule and will require additional funding to cover every empty, blighted house. The initial estimate, Perkins says, is "not a static number," because "it changes as vacancies happen or properties are destroyed due to fire or vandalism."

Property data experts and academic researchers weren't surprised by our findings. Erica Raleigh, the director of Data Driven Detroit, said distinguishing between a merely vacant house and one that is also blighted is "really hard to get at through administrative sources." Victoria Morckel, an urban researcher from the University of Michigan-Flint, who reviewed the criteria informing the Land Bank's assessment, said, "Given the data sources, there is not much danger that the ... blight index incorrectly identifies non-blighted properties as blighted. I would think there is more error in the other direction — some properties that are blighted are missed because there is no city-wide, regularly scheduled, on-the-ground identification effort."

A property manager and a home rehabber also said it's highly unlikely that more than 20,000 vacant Detroit houses are idling in a well-kept state, as the Land Bank suggests. Vacant buildings in this de-populated, high-crime, and high-poverty city are know to be predisposed to blight, especially in more desolate pockets. Chris Garner, the head of Garner Properties, a company that has rehabbed and managed hundreds of Detroit rental houses, said once a house goes vacant, "You have 24 hours" to remove its marketable materials or they'll more than likely be stolen, robbing the house of thousands of dollars in value. Thieves also tend not to be mindful in their exploits, he said, and may break a window or kick down a door, leaving the house exposed to the elements. Houses that sit vacant for an extended period can deteriorate as moisture in the air and a lack of temperature control rot them from the inside, even more so if they're unsealed.

In an internal memo sent last year, the Land Bank attempted to frame Detroit vacancy as benign — the result of ordinary circumstances like a gap period between people moving out and in. For reference, Detroit's 48,000 unoccupied residential structures last year gave it a more than 20 percent vacancy rate among single-family homes. By contrast, cities with stable real estate markets — think Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Grand Rapids — all have vacancy rates of less than 5 percent.

click to enlarge Deciding what constitutes blight can be subjective. For our survey, we defined blight the way it’s described in Michigan state law and the Detroit ordinance governing “dangerous buildings." These are examples of vacant houses we did not consider blighted. - Violet Ikonomova
Violet Ikonomova
Deciding what constitutes blight can be subjective. For our survey, we defined blight the way it’s described in Michigan state law and the Detroit ordinance governing “dangerous buildings." These are examples of vacant houses we did not consider blighted.

Money running out

More abandoned houses could mean the city will need to secure more resources for blight remediation than expected. Currently the Land Bank uses federal funds through the Troubled Asset Relief Program to demolish structures in its inventory. There's just under $100 million left in that pot — about enough to cover a little more than 6,000 demolitions over the next year. According to a source working on demolitions with the city, there are twice as many Land Bank properties in the demo pipeline or under review for demolition, and that list will likely grow as additional houses wind up in Land Bank inventory through tax foreclosure or nuisance abatement actions. Not all of the properties would require demolition, but the longer they sit, the more likely that becomes.

The city also uses money from its general fund to demolish privately owned houses in cases of fire or other emergencies, as well as Land Bank houses in areas near those where federal dollars can be spent. The city has spent more than $80 million on demolitions since 2014. Budget surpluses have seen it put more toward this cause.

But, of course, determining how best to tackle the problem first requires acknowledging it.

Neither the Land Bank nor mayor's office would concede that there may be far more abandoned houses than estimates suggest. In emails, media liaisons in both offices sidestepped questions about the reliability of the blight calculation and the potential consequences of having about 40 percent more abandoned houses than predicted.

"As stated in the memo, the level of vacancy and blight is always fluid," Land Bank spokeswoman Alyssa Strickland said. "The memo indicates a margin of error of +/- 10 percent."

"When dealing with tens of thousands of properties, conditions are fluid and constantly changing," said mayoral spokesman John Roach.

Strickland also downplayed the findings of the board-up crews, saying they were instructed to also seal Land Bank houses that the agency "plans to sell."

"We do not consider properties we plan to sell to be abandoned," Strickland said.

Currently, the Land Bank sells about a thousand houses per year.

Strickland's response underscores the element of semantics involved in qualifying something as "abandoned." The 40,000 abandoned houses in 2014 to which Duggan referred were defined as vacant and blighted through an in-person survey in which participants relied on Michigan and Detroit's legal definitions of blight. Meanwhile, other Land Banks that deal with high levels of blight have a lower threshold for classifying a house as abandoned. In Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, a distressed house that could be a candidate for demolition can be a vacant one that has required boarding or is at least a year behind on its taxes. In Genesee County, which includes Flint, a house is considered abandoned if the taxes or other utility bills haven't been paid for an extended period and if the owner can't be reached. Both definitions are broader and capture more properties.

Rep. Dan Kildee, a congressman from Flint and the former head of the Genesee County Land Bank, said if an agency were to employ a more narrow definition that misses properties, it would do so to its own detriment.

"If somehow the true size or scope of the problem is being diminished, then I think it takes some of the pressure off governmental institutions to put resources in place to actually deal with it," said Kildee. "To me, that's the biggest problem. And the truth is, the problems are what they are. Saying it's better or worse doesn't change the reality on the ground."

click to enlarge Which house is in worse shape? According to the Land Bank, the one on the right, with a hole in its side, is “unlikely to be blighted.” The one on the left is “likely to be blighted.” - Violet Ikonomova
Violet Ikonomova
Which house is in worse shape? According to the Land Bank, the one on the right, with a hole in its side, is “unlikely to be blighted.” The one on the left is “likely to be blighted.”

Proactive vs. reactive

The apparently inaccurate blight calculation raises questions about the reliability of the data being used to guide the day-to-day demolition operations of the city and Land Bank.

In Detroit's Grandale neighborhood, near West Chicago and Greenfield, Luther Johnson has been monitoring changes in the landscape for 50 years. From the well-manicured yard of the red brick Tudor where he grew up, Johnson looks directly onto a vacant lot where the city recently wrapped up a demolition. On one side stands a vacant house whose door appears to at one point have been pried open. On the other stands a worse-off vacant house, its backside crumbling and wooden bones exposed.

"They should have torn it down," Johnson said of the ramshackle house. "And I don't know why they didn't — they tore this one next to it down. They should have torn that one down before they tore this one down because this one was looking better."

To decide which houses to prioritize for teardown, the Land Bank and Detroit Building Authority use a blight probability model similar to the calculation used to determine conditions in the city overall. The model also factors in things like the number of parks and schools within a five-minute walk, the number of nearby blighted houses, and the number of nearby occupied houses. It's unclear what data is used to determine the condition of the houses surrounding a demolition candidate; the Land Bank did not immediately provide us with a response. But if it looks anything like the calculation staff use to come to their citywide assessment of vacancy and blight, it could well be inaccurate. (The agency says it also sometimes tears down houses in response to public complaints.) 

The house to be demolished, in most cases, is visited and inspected only when it comes into Land Bank inventory and once again when the demolition or sales process starts. Years can elapse in between, conditions at nearby non-Land Bank-owned properties can change, and Land Bank-owned houses that were once deemed salvageable can deteriorate.

"I think that basic setup is problematic because we may be prioritizing properties that might not need it, while we're missing other properties," said a source working in demolitions for the city, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We have a tendency to over-rely on our outdated and incomplete data to decide what to demolish. Property conditions can change drastically week to week ... and I don't think anyone thinks our data can capture that."

The consequences can cut both ways, the source said. Last year, the Land Bank seized and demolished the lifelong home of a man named Daniel Murray, saying it was blighted and that the utilities were shut off. Murray had been living in the house on a kerosene tank, and said the Land Bank had come to possess the house without his knowledge. He sued, telling the Detroit Free Press through a lawyer, "By destroying the house, the Land Bank destroyed my life." In a similar incident with a brighter outcome, our source said environmental contractors showed up to multiple privately owned commercial properties in the demolition pipeline, only to find that the lights were on and the grass was cut. The properties, the source said, were added to the demolition list based on Google Street View images from 3-5 years ago and had since been rehabbed. In this case, the fix was simple: The environmental inspector reported that the buildings didn't require demolition.

But there's also concern when the city uses its finite resources to tear down a vacant house that wasn't the best candidate for demolition. The source said those issues come to the Land Bank and city's attention when, like Johnson, "a resident finally saw a house get demolished, but was baffled as to why they didn't get the other blighted one down the block."

Based on interviews with a handful of researchers and public officials who work on tackling blight, there's broad consensus that the most reliable information comes from physical property surveys — but they all acknowledged such data collection is expensive. The last comprehensive property survey, conducted by the Blight Removal Task Force five years ago, cost $1.5 million. Had there been an effort to keep the data current, it would have cost $250,000 per year, according to Data Driven Detroit.

Such an investment, however, could help maximize the demolition program's impact, resulting in cost-savings down the line. The idea is that with more accurate information, the program may be able to more effectively limit the number of new vacancies that could come to require demolition or other intervention in the future.

"Having [parcel-level] data would allow the [Land Bank] and others to be more strategic in their demolition decisions, since policy makers would be able to examine conditions longitudinally and see where blight is accelerating," Morckel, of the University of Michigan-Flint, said. "Good data would allow policy makers to test different demolition strategies and see whether a particular strategy produces the desired effect. Without good data, it's difficult for a demolition program to be proactive; it becomes reactive."

But she said the issue, ultimately, boils down to funding.

"I view the problem as a U-shaped curve," Morckel explained. "With very little funding relative to the size of the problem, it doesn’t matter that much what is torn down— it’s hard to have a big impact and hard to go wrong because so much is blighted. Conversely, when there is lots of funding then the same holds — it doesn’t matter too much which properties one chooses first, since all of the ones that need to come down soon will (say, within the year).

"It’s the middle scenario where data is most needed — there is enough money to make a substantial impact, but not nearly enough money to demolish everything that should be demolished."

click to enlarge A Detroit resident tracks housing conditions as part of a citywide property survey in 2014. - Screengrab, Blight Removal Task Force video
Screengrab, Blight Removal Task Force video
A Detroit resident tracks housing conditions as part of a citywide property survey in 2014.


In late 2013 — as the federal government began to make money available for demolitions through its Troubled Asset Relief Program — the city, with support from the Obama administration, embarked on an unprecedented effort to understand just how much blight it would have to eliminate. The so-called Blight Removal Task Force included representatives from the city's business, philanthropic, public, data, and community development sectors. Its chief function was to carry out a property survey of every Detroit parcel and issue recommendations based on the results.

Over six weeks, 150 Detroit residents fanned out across the city to collect information about the exterior conditions of each house through a so-called "blexting" (a portmanteau of "blight" and "texting") app on their phones and tablets. Data experts monitored their results, providing quality control and pairing the ground-level information with things like property ownership and tax status. When the survey was completed, more than 40,000 structures — 98 percent of which were single-family residential properties — were listed as blighted. Tens of thousands more single-family structures were at risk of becoming blighted (and indeed, up to 6,000 of these houses wound up on the Land Bank's blight possibility rolls). In total, the task force found, about 72,000 houses required intervention.

All of the data was uploaded to a publicly available interactive map where, with a few quick clicks and keystrokes, anyone could learn the condition and occupancy status of any given structure in the city. Alongside the map, colorful pie charts offered a view of the bigger picture, listing things like the total number of vacant houses, houses in poor condition, and houses that required boarding. (In a sign of possible stagnation, the number of required board-ups at the time was 29,000 — about the same as it is today).

The Blight Removal Task Force sought to keep the information up to date. A report published after the effort wrapped recommended that the parcel survey "be extended to become a full, continuous two-way conversation with public." The thought was that residents, using their own phones and dozens of tablets purchased for the initial survey, could help keep track of property conditions in their neighborhoods, promoting community participation and helping "the city and Detroit Land Bank Authority maintain, update, and apply the most accurate information possible, setting broad geographic priorities and making specific parcel-level decisions." In a video advertisement, Duggan joined in the call for volunteers to help keep the data current, saying the information was "invaluable to our community organizations, to the Land Bank, and to our city departments that touch property."

"I'm asking for your help to keep this information up to date so we know what to work on next, whether its tearing something down, or building something up," he said.

'I think there's always an angle when someone is collecting property data ... but if residents are doing it and it's openly sourced, then it's from people that have no agenda.'

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The recommendations were ignored. Money was never committed to the hiring of new surveyors and the Duggan administration's district managers didn't hold training sessions to teach residents how to use the surveying tools, as was advised. With the exception of a re-survey of about a sixth of the city's houses by the Land Bank in 2016, very little information has been added to the survey over the years, and today the data is largely obsolete.

"It makes me sad that we even have these kinds of questions about vacancy and property conditions in Detroit today," said Jerry Paffendorf, CEO of Loveland Technologies, which developed the "blexting" app. "We set up all the tech and the process and the partnerships to make sure that we kept constant track of all that and that we shared it with the public."

"The mood in the lead up to that survey was very much, 'Let's see ourselves clearly,' and I think it's probably time to see ourselves again," he said.

Neither the Land Bank nor Duggan administration responded to questions about why the survey and public map were not kept up. The Land Bank pointed to an existing map that tracks demolition activity exclusively, and a less comprehensive city database where the public can look up some property information, like blight tickets and structure type, in a more piecemeal fashion.

But there are some suspicions as to why the ball was dropped.

"My guess would be it would shed some light on some problems that maybe certain entities don't want revealed," said Lauren Hood, who was the director of community engagement for Loveland at the time of the survey. "I think there's always an angle when someone is collecting property data — there's an end game. But if residents are doing it and it's openly sourced, then it's from people that have no agenda."

"No information will be better than what a resident can tell you is happening next door to them," she added.

click to enlarge According to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, these houses aren’t blighted. - Katherine Raymond
Katherine Raymond
According to the Detroit Land Bank Authority, these houses aren’t blighted.

Does every neighborhood really have a future?

Patrice Green rushed out onto her front stoop barefoot and in a hair cap when we stopped last month to flag the houses on either side of hers as abandoned. "You gonna buy it?" she called out, hopeful that someone might move in and fix things up. Two small children hung back behind the screen door, sharing a can of Pringles.

"They be using the vacant house to just do anything," Green complained. The boarded house to her right is cloaked by overgrown bushes stretching as high as the roofline. Recently, she pulled up in its driveway with her kids in the car to discover a man urinating.

Green doesn't allow her youngest, an 8-year-old girl, to ride her bike or walk the couple blocks to the bus stop on Greenfield where she can catch the bus to go to school in Oak Park. The little girl used to attend the Detroit public school several blocks down the street. She wasn't allowed to walk there either.

"I can't send my kids by these abandoned houses, it's not safe," said Green. "It's not safe to send them to school in the city and it's not safe to send them out the city."

The homes on either side of Green are more than dangerous — they're also eyesores. To-go cups and wrappers litter the lawn of the bush house, and the board covering its door frame reads "DO NOT ENTER" in faded spray paint. The house on the left, also boarded, is obscured by a large tree. A web of tangled weeds growing from its gutter has begun to overtake the roof.

Archive Google Street View imagery shows the house has been boarded and likely vacant since 2011. However, if the data compiled by the Land Bank is to be believed, someone is living in it. The abandoned house on the other side of Green appears to have gone vacant by 2016. It's listed by the Land Bank as "unlikely to be blighted."

Many of the abandoned homes in Green's neighborhood have been missed by the Land Bank's calculation. Grandale, where Green lives, is a lower-income neighborhood in Detroit's 48227 zip code, where the average house sold on the Multiple Listing Service System for $24,500 last year. On the two streets we surveyed near her home, more than half of the houses that were flagged by the Land Bank calculator as merely vacant were in fact blighted. Another handful of houses the Land Bank believed had people living in them appeared vacant and, in some cases, blighted.

Based on the results of our sample survey, the Land Bank calculation had the most difficulty tracking blight in lower-value neighborhoods like Green's, where rehabilitation costs in excess of a home's value have left vacant properties more susceptible to decay. In Detroit's 48213 zip code, near City Airport, where the average house sold last year for $12,000, about 80 percent of the "unlikely to be blighted" properties we surveyed were, in fact, blighted. There we also found decaying, unoccupied houses that weren't listed as vacant at all.

By contrast, in northwest Detroit's 48221 zip code, where the average home sold last year for $75,000, just 20 percent of the Land Bank's "unlikely to be blighted homes" were actually blighted — the exact inverse of the poorer zip to the south.

Perkins, the leader of the board-up effort, said it's in the more blighted areas that crews have found they've had to do "way more board-ups than we expected."

"Based on being in the field and seeing different things, I can assume that it correlates with the property value," she said.

'People, if they've got money, they're not going to want to invest in this neighborhood. If I could afford it, I would move to a better neighborhood.'

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The abandonment in these poorer neighborhoods is fueling a vicious cycle that makes it difficult to see how they can ever bounce back.

Vacancy and blight are known to beget vacancy and blight — both academic research and anecdotal evidence support this. Garner, the property manager, refers to an abandoned house as a "crabgrass weed" that grows by pushing nearby renters away and creating new vacancies. Property owners that remain are said to be more likely to let their homes deteriorate. "When the perception is that the neighborhood is going in the wrong direction, it discourages property owners from taking steps to invest and keep their properties up," said Frank Ford, who studies blight in Cleveland for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

As the abandoned homes depress property values, they further deter responsible investment. Ford's research has found that those who'd be willing to take on a pricey rehab are less likely to do so, as the home won't appraise for a value required to cover the cost. Those who are attracted to such neighborhoods tend to be speculators willing to take a gamble. Such investors can exacerbate blight, Ford said, as their business model relies on putting as little money as possible into a house and flipping for even a slim profit margin. "Getting these houses into the hands of people who are irresponsible actually makes things worse because you're kicking the can down the road," he said.

Garner and another home rehabber we spoke with put the baseline price for rehabbing an average vacant three-bedroom, one-bathroom Detroit house at $20,000. If the house next to Green's is worth about $24,000, the average sales price in the zip code last year, it likely won't be inhabited any time soon. With a lender unlikely to underwrite such a deal, Green's only hope is that someone sitting on $44,000 cash is looking for a place to live. Good schools and safety cannot be priorities for this imaginary person.

Johnson, whose house is around the corner, puts it simply.

"People, if they've got money, they're not going to want to invest in this neighborhood," he said. "If I could afford it, I would move to a better neighborhood."

The city and Land Bank say demolition and blight code enforcement efforts have helped improve neighborhoods by increasing property values and spurring further investment. But blight remediation resources are limited, and the programs pick winners and losers. Green and Luther's neighborhood falls somewhere in the middle: With a less than 70 percent occupancy rate, it is ineligible for federal demolition funds. However, because it's close to a federal demolition zone, the city appears to have invested in tearing down some houses there. Still, it's difficult to know what impact those demolitions have had in keeping new abandoned houses from sprouting, given the amount of undetected blight we found in the area.

We surveyed conditions in the neighboring federal demolition zone, near West Chicago and Schaefer. There, the outcomes seemed a little better: The rate of blight among "unlikely to be blighted" properties was slightly lower at 35 percent, several homes listed as unoccupied showed signs of life, and a couple properties appeared to be undergoing extensive rehab. But just as higher occupancy is a requisite for the federal aid, it also tends to mean higher property values, which incentivize investment on their own.

And while housing values in Detroit have increased in the past few years, 11 zip codes covering more than a third of the city last year had average values of $30,000 or below. A half-dozen of those zips had average values of less than $18,000.

It's not clear what the plan is for these places. Recently, the head of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department told Bridge Magazine that low-occupancy neighborhoods may be shut down entirely, with people moved out and into Land Bank-owned homes elsewhere. The highly controversial prospect, which Duggan's team has refuted, stands in direct conflict with the promise the mayor campaigned on when he was first elected in 2013. At the time, the slogan was "every neighborhood has a future." The slogan of the Blight Removal Task Force in 2014 was also "every neighborhood has a future," with "and that future does not include blight" tacked on. In this year's State of the City, Duggan prefaced his claim that there are just 22,000 abandoned houses remaining by saying, "You may remember I ran on something where I said every neighborhood has a future."

click to enlarge Barbara and Clifton Epps on their porch in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighbrohood. - Violet Ikonomova
Violet Ikonomova
Barbara and Clifton Epps on their porch in Detroit’s Fitzgerald neighbrohood.

'Collective action problem'

Back on their porch in northwest Detroit, Barbara and Clifton Epps seem unaware that their neighborhood is one of the latest government-selected winners. A so-called "tipping-point neighborhood" at the edge of Detroit's University District, Fitzgerald is a place where officials believe significant investment can break the cycle of decay. It is an area that can be "brought back."

The city is to invest at least $4 million in Fitzgerald as part of a larger project to rehab 115 Land Bank-owned homes. Initially that number was 130, but once teams with the developer on the project got inside the houses, a spokesman said they discovered it would make more economic sense to demolish some of them. Other hiccups have pushed the project a year behind schedule.

Aside from a new park that was to soon open on the block behind the Epps' house, little progress had been made by the time we visited. As the pair considered the state of their street, they were more concerned with the past.

"It should have never got like this," Barbara said, shaking her head. "I wish they had just let people stay in their houses, like the bank or Wayne County or whoever. Let people just stay there. The [houses] won't get torn up."

Barbara of course, was speaking to foreclosure — the kindling for the spread of blight in Detroit.

The correlation between foreclosure and vacancy is well documented. A Loveland survey of nearly 6,000 houses that were tax-foreclosed and entered the auction in 2013 found more than a sixth of them vacant the following year. The Blight Removal Task Force, meanwhile, revisited 50,000 tax-foreclosed homes that had also been surveyed five years prior. In 2009, 34,500 of the homes were occupied; by 2014, just 22,000 were occupied — a net loss of 37 percent.

But foreclosure also appears to negatively influence property conditions. The batch of 4,800 houses deemed "heavily blighted" by the Land Bank have gone through foreclosure a total 5,000 times, records show. The 20,000 houses deemed "vacant and likely blighted" have gone through 19,000 foreclosure events. And the 17,000 "vacant and unlikely to be blighted" houses have gone through 12,000 foreclosure events. (A house can be foreclosed more than once in its lifetime.)

Last month, as we made our way down Winthrop Street in Grandale, a copper-colored, full-size van followed close behind. Every few houses, the van would stop and a man would get out to hang a yellow baggy on a front door. It was a harbinger of vacancies to come: The baggies contained delinquency notices for households at least two years behind on their taxes.

Though the annual number of occupied homes foreclosed has fallen from its 2015 peak of nearly 9,000, the number of households that still have trouble paying their tax bills shows how precarious the situation remains. At least 36,000 Wayne County households are in the midst of receiving foreclosure warnings for taxes more than two years past due. Separately, at least 31,000 households are on payment plans to cover back taxes plus interest.

Interventions have pushed the number of occupied homes foreclosed below 2,000 in the last two years. If efforts to keep the number of foreclosures to a minimum continue, the greatest threat to the city's neighborhoods may soon be the houses that stand empty.

"Having a number sit for a long time isn't necessarily equilibrium, it could unfortunately be a step backward for the homes in close proximity," Ford, with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy in Cleveland, told us.

The central question, of course, is whether they'll deteriorate and negatively impact their neighborhoods before they can be taken down or saved. It's a question of pace: Does blight move faster than the city's efforts to address it?

Without the proper data — and without a willingness to obtain it — there's no way to know.

As the man delivering tax delinquency notices for the county approached each home, he stopped to take a photo. Another man hung back in the van, jotting down notes about the homes' conditions. All of the information was going back to the Wayne County Treasurer's Office, the man told us. The pair work for a company the county is paying millions to issue the warnings.

The board-up crews, meanwhile, have also been taking photos of each home they have to seal. Right now their data, which is logged in an app, is not used to arrive at a conclusion about just how much blight may still hold the city back. The Land Bank said it does not use it.

"I had this crazy idea, and I'm not the only one, that maybe we could harness the day-to-day activity of units of people who are already seeing property," said Raleigh with Data Driven Detroit. "Collectively, we could be contributing to this data source."

Not doing so, she said, is "a collective action problem more than it is a resource problem. If we agreed on what needs to be collected and that we all cared to contribute, we would probably do it."

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