Bulldoze away: Some Detroit neighborhoods need thinning out

Widespread home demolition not only can stabilize Detroit neighborhoods, but make them safer and lead to revitalization, argues urban planning scholar Alan Mallach.

Mallach has studied Detroit extensively and wrote an influential paper in 2012, “Laying the Groundwork for Change,” that helped provide the rationale for the ongoing, federally funded demolition blitz in Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac, Grand Rapids and other cities nationwide.

Mallach also lobbied federal Treasury officials to allow cities to use money from the Hardest Hit Fund –  established in 2010 to help homeowners following the 2008 housing crash –  for  demolitions. He pushed for a targeted approach, arguing that blighted homes are “health and safety hazards” and empty lots are easier to maintain.

Mallach wrote the paper as a fellow for the Brookings Institute. He’s now a senior fellow at the Flint-based Center for Community Progress, a national nonprofit that advocates for investment in vacant spaces.

Bridge Magazine spoke with him by phone. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Alan Mallach

Urban policy scholar Alan Mallach says that, in many cases, vacant lots are better than vacant homes.

Bridge: Let’s get down to it. You are a proponent of widescale demolitions.

Mallach: Yes. I saw a piece recently where I was referred to as a cheerleader for demolitions. I admit that I have played an important role in getting this whole thing started but … I’ve never said demolition in and of itself is going to solve anyone’s problems. You can’t get around the fact that demolition, unfortunately in a lot of the cases, is necessary. But you’ve got to do more. It’s got to be part of a larger strategy.

Is that what’s happening in Detroit, a demolition-only strategy?

It’s not a demolition-only strategy. It certainly looks like it’s a demolition-heavy reality. To be fair to Detroit, the city’s planning people are trying to figure out more proactive, affirmative strategies for a number of key areas in the strategy … such as for the Fitzgerald neighborhood that clearly tries to go beyond demolition and go toward a more proactive strategy to stabilize that area. [Editor’s note: The Fitzgerald project is a $4 million project plans to landscape 192 vacant lots and rehab 115 vacant homes in the northwest Detroit neighborhood.]

The jury is out on where this is going and how successful it will be. But at least they are thinking about this stuff… One of the question marks is does the city have the fiscal resources and is there market demand to get substantial stuff to happen in other areas?

How should this be done and how closely is Detroit hewing to that model?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year asking the question: What is it that leads a neighborhood to revive? … The most significant factor is the existence of a pretty intact physical texture of the neighborhood. If a neighborhood gets carved up by too many vacancies, at some point, its ability to revive becomes seriously compromised.

Demolition can really start to work against a neighborhood’s prospects of revival. Does that mean you shouldn’t demolish? The answer is no. The problem that cities like Detroit have to confront is that a lot of these houses simply will not find enough people to live in them in a short enough period to save the house. That’s a reality.

You really need to think about which neighborhood are you going to focus on for revitalization and which areas are you essentially going to thin out. In Detroit, it’s clear there’s already a lot of areas that are already significantly thinned out.

The biggest thing you should do is think about future prospects for different areas for revival. If (the neighborhood is) close to Midtown it’s going to have a better shot than if it’s five miles away.

Your research has found that 178,000 homes were demolished in Detroit from 1970 to 2000. There’s been tens of thousands more since. That’s a staggering number. Is the city better off because of it?

This is where it gets complicated. Who knows. I think you could certainly ask that question. But the fact is, between 1950 when it peaked in population at nearly 2 million and today, Detroit has lost 1.3 million people.

The theory that if those houses had been left standing, people would have moved into them and Detroit wouldn’t have lost population, frankly, it’s not tenable. People were moving out of Detroit for all kinds of reasons. Not because their houses were being demolished from under them.

Imagine if the demolitions didn’t happen. Imagine Detroit with a half-million structures today, with 300,000 of them empty. What would that city look like? I’m not sure that’s not even worse than what Detroit currently looks like.

That’s the crux of the problem: These (Rust Belt) cities have lost hundreds of thousands of households.

Detroit has spent tens of millions of dollars on demolitions in the past few years. But some research suggests they haven’t even kept pace with the number of houses that have fallen into disrepair over that time and now need to be demolished. Is this just a vicious cycle?

It is a vicious cycle, and the only way you break the vicious cycle is by changing the basic economics of demand.

The reason houses are still being abandoned in Detroit is because people either can’t maintain them or people don’t want them. The reasons for that may have to do with poverty or because people who have any choice don’t want to live in neighborhoods and just walk away from properties. Unless you change those dynamics of poverty and market demand, you’re not going to change the underlying picture.

At some point, you may get down to a Detroit which has finally shrunk to the point where it’s stable, but I’m not sure that point will necessarily come.

Can the comeback of downtown and Midtown can have any stabilizing impact on the neighborhoods?

Depends on the neighborhood. What’s happening in downtown and Midtown is neat –  I don’t underestimate it –  but it has an incremental effect moving outward. It’s not likely to have much of an impact on a neighborhood three to five miles away. You have some emerging pockets in an area like Corktown or West Village, but huge parts of the city are not affected by downtown and Midtown.

But there has already been a ripple effect in areas like the North End. Why can’t progress just keep spreading from one neighborhood to the next?

The question is how much demand actually exists for the city’s product. Which in this case is houses. How much demand is there to actually generate a revival?

Given the huge size of Detroit and the extent to which it’s shrunk, whatever ripples you see moving out from the central core are going to be very limited.

There will be some. But it’s not going to be constant growth, demand, revival and rehab at any kind of fast pace. The number of people who want to buy a house in a Detroit neighborhood just isn’t there. The sheer scale is daunting.

OPPOSING VIEW: Detroit wants to demo 40,000 homes. It won’t fix much.

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John S.
Thu, 07/06/2017 - 10:10am

I'd guess that a lot of the homes that are demolished have lead issues. Removing old, blighted houses seems like a good idea. Still, the problem is population loss. My simple minded view is that Detroit's high millage--70.0905--is responsible for a lot of the abandoned housing. The high millage is capitalized into the value of homes, greatly depressing their market values, inhibiting any appreciation in their values. It's almost pointless to spend money to keep up a home when other people in the neighborhood are abandoning theirs. If the value of the home falls below what's owed on the mortgage or in back taxes, the incentive is plainly to stop payments and wait until the sheriff shows up. Pontiac has a sizable poor population. It's millage is only 36.9666. There are problems of blight there, but they're far less severe. Solution: Reduce the millage! Find other sources of revenue to fund city services.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 3:37pm

John S. is correct when he says, 'Still, the problem is population loss." But the problem is still more fundamental than that; Detroit's population does not earn sufficient income to support adequate infrastructure and a good quality housing stock. He is right when he says that his "view is that Detroit's high millage--70.0905--is responsible for a lot of the abandoned housing." And it may be that sharply reducing the millage, even though it would have exacerbated Detroit's revenue problem, might have stabilized housing values. But if it didn't succeed in attracting fresh demand for Detroit housing, it would have had to be abandoned. He says, " Find other sources of revenue to fund city services." But what would those other sources have been?

As I noted above, Detroit's basic, intractable problem is that the residents lack the education and skills required to earn good incomes. Regrettably, the problem will only get worse because the returns to education are sharply increasing relative to the returns to unskilled physical labor.

John S.
Mon, 07/10/2017 - 3:18pm

Plainly, improving public education is key longer term to reducing the city's poverty rate. Still, the problem is the exit of middle class residents due to the high costs of living in Detroit (property taxes, property insurance, auto insurance, income tax if employed in the city, private/parochial/charter school tuition). The first problem to deal with is to stop the bleeding--exit of middle class residents. The property tax has been a declining source of city revenue (about $90 million in FY 2016). There's been a concerted effort to collect unpaid fines and property tax bills. That's an important effort. The State (perhaps not under the Republicans) can help the city with auto insurance reform and greater revenue sharing. Perhaps the state legislature could authorize an "entertainment" tax. Lowering the millage gradually is an option. Perhaps there's something more that can be done on the expenditure side. Cutback management isn't easy and it's not fun, but it can be done.

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 11:58am

Tearing down abandoned houses does little to solve Detroit's infrastructure problem. Miles and miles of sewer, water,etc., still have to be maintained for those scattered scattered residents that still remain. The only way to shrink the infrastructure is to shrink the cities foot print and move residents into a smaller central area where they can be served by and support a smaller infrastructure network. Unfortunately such a process is fraught with legal and ethical problems.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 07/06/2017 - 3:29pm

Didn't Mayor Archer suggest something similar several years ago.

Two glaring problems still remain; who decides who stays and who goes along with how do you follow through to see that is done to the maximum effect of the city as a whole.

I just don't see anyone in Detroit City Government up to that task.

And if you cannot do that, the rest of the idea will ultimately fail.

Thu, 07/06/2017 - 3:58pm

In addition to or maybe instead shouldn't Detroit look at lopping off farther flung neighborhoods to bring the area more into line?

John Saari
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 6:49am

Raze as many structures as possibile. Provide free land to farms, factories, bigbox stores, subdivision developers, multi family developers etc. Don't bid out demolitions for each structure. Do a block, or more, at a time.

John Saari
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 7:02am

Encourage the development and success of neighborhood's. Raze as many structures as possible. Bid them out a block or more at a time. Give away land(and other incentives) for big box stores, factories, subdivision and multi-family developers, etc. Put the rest of the vacant land into neighborhood parks, maintained by volunteers.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 3:43pm

Mr. Wallach has rescued the reputation of think tank scholars.

Ann Farnell
Mon, 07/10/2017 - 8:07pm

Michigan Observer: who is Mr Wallach? I don't see the reference?

Tue, 07/11/2017 - 7:43pm

The problem with Detroit is simply. you had a corrupt government and police force led by a bunch of racists that exploded into a riot. The white folks moved out. Then turned around tried to gut the city of what was left taking. and just abandon houses. So they could paint it as a poor lazy black city.

The BIGGEST, EASIEST, and CHEAPEST thing we can do to correct the issues, is to quit ripping on it and focus on positives. It is mindblowingly simple. there are a lot of cool hip and vibrant things that go on in Detroit. They aren't all poor. Detroit ranks 8th in US cities for EV adoption. The Trumpies are all complaining because it is a rich persons car. Then you have the music scene which is still pretty hot.

Part of the revival of the city is getting rid of the global leader of Urban decay lable and coming up with new and positive things for regrowth. I have seen tiny houses, which hip and trendy, to hoop house greenhouses for organics, and a whole bunch of other stuff you don't see from other cities, because they do have a bunch of empty lots and it is attracting young people. Fix some of the public trans issues while the lots are empty and you are going to see revival in even more areas and in 20 years it might be the hip cool city in the midwest.

The biggest downside to that is when I travel, I will no longer be able to say I am from Detroit and have people step back to give me lots of personal space.

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 9:27am

Northeast Detroit-City Council District 3 continues to lose population. It is perhaps the most forgotten area amidst plans for Detroit future growth. I would like to know what parts of Detroit had the greatest loss during the unprecedented population decline of 250,000 from 2000-2010, and where are the numbers still going down strong, today in 2017. I would not be surprised if District 3 is tops. District 3 includes 3.3 square miles of the 5.5 square mile 48212 ZIpcode ( the other 2.2 square miles is Hamtramck 48212 which is densely populated in comparison), especially areas north and south of E.McNichols from I-75 , east to Ryan and to the "Times Square" style intersection of E.Davison@E.McNichols(6 Mile). That part of Detroit was an old time Restaurant Row(Shields, Turtle Soup Inn, Buddys, Savinas Place.etc...)and marketplace with ethnic grocers, produce markets, the first Franks Nursery, many bakeries, and more, a busy area in the 1920s, 30s,40s,50s,60s,70s, and to a lesser degree the 80s-early 90s. From the 1920s to 1950s, it was served by the 24/7 Baker Streetcar that connected Northeast Detroit to Hamtramck to Chene Street to Gratiot to Downtown to Southwest Detroit/Dearborn. It was similar in some ways to Corktown and Southwest Detroit. Nothing much left today. And other areas of District 3 (48234, 48205, parts of 48203 east of John R., parts of 48213 where an industrial park is rising on the fields of once densely populated neighborhoods) continue to lose residents. The district also had many, perhaps most in the city or state, public school closings in recent times.