Mayors of Detroit have had a unique way of measuring success: By the number of homes they’ve torn down.
One of former Mayor Dave Bing’s signature programs was his pledge to demolish 10,000 homes. When his successor, Mike Duggan, hit that goal last year, he hosted a celebration complete with a sign reading “10,000” on the west side home that was razed.
Duggan has demolished about 11,500 homes and wants to raze another 2,000 to 4,000 per year, making it the nation’s largest blight-removal program. The city has received more than $250 million for the effort from the federal government’s Hardest Hit Fund of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and through Michigan State Housing Development Authority.
Demolitions are popular among neighbors in a city that’s lost more than 1 million residents in 60 years, and where blighted and burned homes can remain nuisances for decades.
But demolitions are also controversial. The Hardest Hit Fund was created to provide mortgage relief to help homeowners who owed more than their homes were worth after the 2008 housing collapse. Steering money toward demolitions denied to it underwater homeowners.
And Duggan’s program is the focus of multiple investigations. The federal government has filed subpoenas into bidding practices and demolition costs. A separate grand jury has reportedly subpoenaed as many as 30 contractors and city agencies (Duggan says he’s not a target). State officials are advocating fines because contractors mishandled asbestos from razed homes.
What’s more, a recent blight survey by Loveland Technologies, a private company that maps the city, questions whether demolition is even keeping pace with blight in Detroit. Vacancies in neighborhoods targeted for demolition have actually increased 64 percent in four years, the survey found.
That begs the question: Do demolitions work? After decades and tens of millions of dollars spent on home demolition in Detroit, are neighborhoods any better? Could there be another way?
Bridge Magazine posed the questions to two land-use scholars who’ve studied Detroit: Jason Hackworth, a professor of planning and geography at the University of Toronto, and Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a Flint-based nonprofit that studies urban issues.
Hackworth argues Detroit has little to show for all its demolitions.
Mallach says razing homes can stabilize neighborhoods.
Click on the links below to hear both sides of the demolition debate.