A midnight blue Chevy rolls slowly down a snow-covered street, an emergency strobe light on its roof and a sign on its side that promises this is “official business.” At each house, business, even vacant lot, workers in the car pause to decide whether someone lives there and what shape the place is in before snapping a photo and beaming it to “mission control” miles away.
All over Detroit, scores of these workers—on some days as many as 75 three-person teams—have been wending their way through the streets since December, cataloging on computer tablets one of this bankrupt city’s most devastating ailments: its tens of thousands of abandoned and dilapidated buildings.
Everyone here has long known that Detroit is plagued by emptying neighborhoods, but this expedited, top-to-bottom analysis of all 380,217 parcels of land in the city, which is to be finished in a matter of weeks, will quantify the state of blight here with a level of detail rare for an American city.
And for leaders in Detroit, the database is expected to bring the clearest, if perhaps the gloomiest, picture yet of the city’s hollowed-out neighborhoods, which homes can be saved and where demolition may be the only cure. While earlier studies have aimed to track Detroit’s circumstances and officials have issued their own estimates of the woes (the city’s emergency manager has referred to 78,000 vacant buildings while other city officials say the number may be closer to 90,000), nothing has been as comprehensive.
Still, even this wide-reaching survey, which has cost $1.5 million in foundation and private funds, will hardly serve as a solution to this city’s blight. Leaders here have long set ambitious goals. The previous mayor, Dave Bing, sought to tear down 10,000 dilapidated buildings in his time in office. Kevyn D. Orr, the city’s appointed emergency manager, has called for an end to blight in the coming three years. And even as some officials here have predicted that demolishing the buildings that must go could cost as much as $1 billion, other entities, like a public-private effort called the Detroit Blight Authority have begun their own aggressive demolition campaigns.
But even once officials fully understand how many empty buildings they have and where they are, they face overwhelming challenges—an amalgam of the politically sensitive issues faced by lots of struggling American cities: How can a city of 139 square miles and once built for 1.8 million people comfortably hold its current 700,000 residents, and must it, in essence, shrink to survive? Which buildings are so ramshackle as to require demolition, and which should be restored and sold? How does a city wisely and quickly dispose of empty properties when ownership is tangled? And how does a place act fast enough and in an order that prevents new neighborhoods from slipping under even as worse ones are being saved?
There are undeniable complications, particularly since many of the $10-an-hour surveyors in the streets have never done this sort of work before. Some elements of the survey—which include rating a building’s structure as good, fair, poor or “suggest demolition” and determining from the outside whether a place is occupied—require at least a level of subjective judgment. And the survey, which routinely draws questions (“Why are you taking a picture of my house?”), seems certain to stir more debate among residents when the Blight Removal Task Force issues broad recommendations using its findings, probably in late March, and when the map results become public.