Detroit is razing thousands of homes. It won’t fix much.

Aggressive demolition campaigns may sound good to voters, but won’t help Detroit, argues Jason Hackworth, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto.

An Ohio native, Hackworth has studied extensively studied Detroit’s abandonment, finding that no other Rust Belt city in the United States has experienced such wide-scale demolition.

Hackworth argues that, while large-scale urban renewal projects and highway construction from 1949 to 1974 are blamed for destroying neighborhoods, so-called “ad hoc demolition” in the past 50 years has done far more damage. 

In Detroit, nearly 13,500 acres –  the equivalent of 21 square miles, or about 1/7th of the city –  have lost at least 50 percent of their housing to demolition since 1970, according to Hackworth. That compares to about 1,000 acres that lost half their homes during urban renewal.

He argues that demolition works best when it’s followed by programs to invest or build in neighborhoods. So he’s pessimistic about the chances of success for Mayor Mike Duggan’s latest demolition blitz, arguing in papers such as “Why there’s No Detroit in Canada” that racial animosities and hostility from state lawmakers lower the city’s comeback chances.

Bridge Magazine recently interviewed Hackworth by phone. His answers are edited for length and clarity.

Jason Hackworth

University of Toronto professor Jason Hackworth says demolitions have done more to harm Detroit than urban renewal and highway construction.

Bridge: Mayor Duggan has spent a lot of time and money measuring his success on the number of homes he’s demolished. So did his predecessor, Dave Bing. Is Detroit any better off?

Jason Hackworth: I don’t think so. But (Duggan) is responding like every other big city mayor with lots of vacancies. He’s going where the money is. It’s really a pragmatic decision.

My guess is that he’d prefer there be money to follow (demolitions) to build things, but there just isn’t. There’s scads of federal money available for demolition and nothing else. I think Duggan, like other mayors, is trying to thread this needle of making it look like (he’s) doing something without having the resources to do it.

There are a number of studies that evaluate the impact of demolition on a city’s fortunes. They show fairly clearly that having a vacant house next to a house that is occupied really drags down the value of the occupied house. But they also found that having a vacant lot also drags down the value, just at a slower rate.

Cities like Detroit and Cleveland that accelerated demolitions since the 1970s perhaps slowed some of the hemorrhage, but only marginally so.  

So no, (Detroit) is not better, but I don’t place blame at the feet of Duggan or anyone else. It’s a much bigger problem. It’s the lack of money from state and federal governments to do anything positive and the belief that the free market will evolve from these vacant spaces, which they’ve never really done.

There has been some suggestion, even in your own research, that demolition begets demolitions.

As bad as urban renewal was in the 1960s, there was money to build things. … Since the 1970s, cities have been orphaned by the state and federal governments. And demolition money is a last-ditch effort to slow the bleeding of disinvestment … but it just accelerates decline. Vacant homes are seen as discouraging. So are vacant lots. So it starts snowballing and you get more demolitions.

You’ve written about a belief that “demolition is the larval form of regeneration.” What does your research show?

There’s a belief in market fundamentalism, that something good will come from demolitions, but it’s largely not in places like city hall in Detroit or Cleveland. It’s in Lansing and Columbus and other state capitals where these policies are forged and demolition money is allocated.

It’s from Republican-controlled, rural-dominated state governments, where a caricature form of urban policy gets forged by politicians who not only aren’t thinking about this at a nuanced level but have a real hostility to cities.

Are you saying demolition only works in concert with other programs? That, in and of itself, it can’t help much?

I don’t want to be overly critical. It would be foolish to suggest that some houses don’t have to come down. Some are so run down they’re uninhabitable and others have been so stripped that you’d have to invest $10,000 to $15,000 in an environment where you can only sell it for $10,000.

There is a sensible argument to be made that demolition can be part of some kind of redevelopment, but it is never by itself generated any market outcomes.

You researched Detroit and found that no other city has lost more land mass to demolition since 1970. What role does housing stock play?

There’s some fantastic, really well nice built homes in the center of the city. But a lot of the city is built as bungalow, wood-frame construction that burns very easily (and) deteriorates very rapidly if left alone.

It’s not as much of an issue in other cities that grew more slowly because they didn’t experience the kind of boom Detroit did or were older and couldn’t build outward as quickly.

I do think (housing stock is) a component of why there’s such vast vacancy in Detroit.       

So if demolitions can’t solve all problems does that mean they shouldn’t be done?

No, I just think they need to be part of a larger solution. If they’re going to do them, the ideal case would be part of a larger redevelopment.

If I was the mayor of Detroit or Cleveland, I probably wouldn’t turn the money down either because I do think constituents living on streets with vacant houses have legitimate gripes and lives probably do improve if you demolish the house next door that is being used a drug den.

But my critique is this notion is that it’s going to do anything more.

Do you have an alternate theory about what would have happened, 50 years ago, if Detroit and other Rust Belt cities hadn’t pursued aggressive demolition strategies?

I don’t know if there’s an alternate theory but I would say other cities have experienced similar levels of de-industrialization throughout the world and they don’t look like Detroit.

Part of it is quality of construction. Part of it is isolation from state government…. But I do think these issues are more acute in a place that is more African American. The effort that whites in Detroit have historically made to stay away from the black majority has been extraordinary. And I think it affects the level of disinvestment and why it’s so much more acute there than it is elsewhere in country where there’s more mixed population. The exit reaction was far more severe.

So you’re not all-in on Detroit’s comeback?

No. I think the downtown, Corktown, Midtown is a fundamentally different place than it was even five years ago and it’s increasing in population because of mostly white people who used to live in the suburbs.

But that’s almost completely irrelevant to most of the rest of the city. The rest of the city continues disintegrating. And I don’t think of the two as being related. If anything, I think that’s why there continues to be an out-migration of black residents: This belief that there’s never going to be a connection (between downtown and the neighborhoods).

OPPOSING VIEW: Bulldoze away: Some Detroit neighborhoods need thinning out

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Ida Byrd-Hill
Thu, 07/06/2017 - 12:44pm

I agree with this analysis. Demolition eliminates poorly constructed deteriorating houses. It does not address the issues that led to blight

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 6:58pm

True but it's a chicken or the egg thing. I don't think you wait until "everything's
perfect and all the ducks are in a row" to get something done especially if you have the money and what you are doing is part of the overall plan. It may be theoretically "better" to wait but on a practical basis there will always be issues and there will always be naysayers so if you have the money to complete a step in the process I say do it don't wait.

Susan Murdie
Fri, 07/07/2017 - 10:43am

There are a number of studies that evaluate the impact of demolition on a city’s fortunes. They show fairly clearly that having a vacant house next to a house that is occupied really drags down the value of the occupied house. But they also found that having a vacant lot also drags down the value, just at a slower rate.
No, there was only one study done by Dynamo Metrics and it was critically flawed with bad numbers. The company Dynamo Metrics uses census block tract estimated (by home owners) property values where they should have used actual home sales values. They also only used the demolition cost and did not include other costs such as acquisition costs or government staff time. The biggest flaw is they never compare the value of a vacant lot to the value of a home repaired with a new homeowner.

Susan Murdie
Fri, 07/07/2017 - 10:45am

Thank you for printing an opposition story to mass demolitions which have eliminated affordable housing for those who need it most!

Sun, 07/09/2017 - 6:28am

I disagree.
On a practical level some homes can be renovated and some homes are so far gone that renovation is too costly and not a good idea. The City of Detroit has an ongoing program---The Detroit Land Bank---that identifies and "purchases" for $1 abandoned homes that might be able to be renovated. These homes are owned by the Land Bank and are free and clear of all liens. There is even a program that connects interested re-developers with banks and construction contractors. So there is a program available to help those who wish to redevelop. But those houses that from a structural point of view are too expensive to renovate should be demolished. In that case new infill housing is the best idea. That creates issues of its own but at least is an attempt at a step forward rather than sitting around and waiting until you can be pure on a doctrinaire basis. Life isn't like that.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 2:45pm

Didn't it occur to Ms. Murdie that the people who needed affordable housing didn't want the houses that were scheduled for demolition?

Paul Martinsky
Fri, 07/07/2017 - 12:00pm

In many parts of the city, especially in Northeast Detroit-City Council District 3, there are demolitions of well constructed brick homes that fell into abandonment, destruction, and ruin, some in areas that were considered prime. So much new vacant land, more than people realize on streets in the 48212, 48234, and 48205 zipcodes that are in District 3, also sections of 48213 and 48203 that are in the district. In 48212, the numerous lots are on both main and residential streets near McNichols(6 Mile), E.Davison, and Nevada, from Dequindre to Conant to Ryan to Mound to Mt. Elliott. It's interesting to note that the 48212 area of Hamtramck has very few vacant houses and lots compared to Detroit 48212. Plus more in Hamtramck 48212 are smaller homes on smaller lots than many, perhaps most, of the houses demolished in Detroit 48212. There is also increased, noticeably more empty houses these days in Conant Gardens, in the 48234 area north of aforementioned area.

Harold Leese
Sat, 07/08/2017 - 8:31am

Federal and State funded full bus service will put safety first, if supported by Detroit residents. Please make my petition go viral to get this done.

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 6:14am

While I agree with Professor Hackworth that more needs to be done than just demolition and that you need an overall program that includes redevelopment. But as Professor Hackworth stated in the article all too often in government there is money allocated for certain things but not for others. Mandates are outlined but funding is not provided up front. It would be nice if things were different but I think it's best to do what you can in the moment with the money you've got rather than wait until you have the entire plan together and can do everything seamlessly. That may be the best choice theoretically but really doesn't work well on a practical level. Your resources are always limited in some way so you have to work with what you've got and get done what you can rather than waiting for the most theoretically perfect circumstances. Besides demolition of abandoned buildings in Detroit has been an ongoing issue for decades. And if buildings cannot practically be renovated and reused what use is there for them to remain standing?

John Saari
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 7:12am

Encourage neighborhoods. Using emminate domain, take ownership of land and demolish structures a block or more at a time. Give away land to developers of farms, factories, subdivisions, multi-family, big box stores etc. Put the rest of the land into neighborhood parks, maintained by volunteers. Abandon streets and infrastructure whenever possible.

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 4:23pm

While I am not aware of a City wide municipal program to do what you have suggested there are probably many private entities not for profit and for profit who are doing something similar. Hantz Farms is one I know of. Shar House is another. There are no doubt others. More initiatives like this should be encouraged with support from the City but I don't think the City needs to get into extensive and expensive renovation projects on its own but better to provide funding and guidance to neighborhood agencies like churches and neighborhood clubs to redevelop properties in their area. This is happening already but it not as widely publicized as it could be. The opportunity is there if anyone wishes to take advantage of it and put the work in. There is risk and you must do your homework but in any endeavor that is always true.

Michigan Observer
Sun, 07/09/2017 - 3:01pm

Professor Hackworth sets up a straw man and then ostentatiously proceeds to knock it down. I don't know of anyone who contended that demolition would redevelop Detroit, but demolition must take place before redevelopment can occur. And it is unlikely that a policy of clearing a limited area and then redeveloping it would have succeeded in the absence of demand for housing in that area. And even today, there is extremely limited demand for market rate housing in the neighborhoods.

David L Richards
Wed, 07/12/2017 - 5:00pm

I would have liked to have seen much more detail regarding this comment by Professor Hackworth: "Since the 1970s, cities have been orphaned by the state and federal governments." He may be right, but I bet the Republicans in the state legislature would recite multiple examples of where Detroit has been supported by Lansing. A fuller explanation of the professor's statement would be worth reading.

John S.
Thu, 08/10/2017 - 11:05pm

A known problem is population loss in the neighborhoods, especially of tax-paying middle class residents. The city's very expensive for middle class residents: assessments that are too high along with the high millage means high property taxes; high property insurance; high auto insurance; extra costs of security measures; tuition costs if children are sent to non-public schools; income tax for residents working in the city. Removing blighted properties is important, but if people keep moving out of the city, additional houses will become blighted. With respect to blight, the city's on a treadmill. There's need for policies that stem population loss.

Chris Carpenter
Fri, 08/11/2017 - 1:36am

Typical liberal professor - criticize what is being done but don't have a workable alternative solution. Tearing down old houses full of lead paint, asbestos and other hazard helps prevent them being used as drug houses or by gangs who want to rape people walking by. Empty lots are much safer.

Wed, 01/01/2020 - 3:47pm

With any new construction, the old stock must first be torn down and hauled away. So what must be done must be done now. Everyone agrees new construction would be terrific for Detroit, but that won’t occur until the inhabitants have an adundance of jobs.