Every year, Michiganders throw away more than 11 million tons of waste in landfills, according to a report conducted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in 2013. Although recent years have seen an emphasis on improving recycling programs around the state, they have also seen federal dollars allocated to blight removal. Because the funding stipulates that a certain number of properties must be addressed in a short period of time, the actual result of that funding has meant that more building materials are ending up in landfills as well.
As of MDEQ’s fiscal year 2015 report, the amount of solid waste ending up in landfills had increased nearly a million tons, to just over 12 million. We have to ask ourselves: how can the state and federal authorities encourage more recycling and environmental sustainability, meanwhile pushing for the quick demolition of blighted properties?
There is a better way, and it has to do with deconstructing these blighted and abandoned structures. It takes more time, yes; it takes more money, yes. But the social, environmental, and economic benefits outweigh those costs.
The process of deconstructing a home requires more labor than simply demolishing it, and the materials must be sorted and processed, creating jobs. Those jobs generate taxable income, creating revenue for the state to spend on infrastructure improvements (like roads). Once the materials obtained through the process of deconstruction are sold, they pay for the process and also generate a net profit.
According to estimates by the Architectural Salvage Warehouse in Detroit, an average home costs roughly $35,000 to deconstruct. The value of the materials recovered from that home, like structural and architectural lumber, bricks, window frames and more, when resold is between approximately $45,000 and $90,000. That’s a potential 2:1 return on investment. Based on quarterly reporting by Step Forward Michigan, the median amount of assistance being provided by the Hardest Hit Funds to demolish a home, on the other hand, is roughly $10,000 – with none of that money being returned through material sales. An entire, sustainable economic sector could exist in Michigan if policymakers wanted it to. So why doesn’t it?
The MSU Center for Community and Economic Development is conducting a study of this potential economic sector, and has found that tipping fees (the cost to put garbage in a landfill) in Michigan are some of the lowest in the nation. There is also no policy addressing the use of recycled materials in new construction; by way of contrast, California requires that all new construction contain a percentage of materials from recycled content. If such a policy were adopted in Michigan, it would drive demand for those products, which would in turn increase the incentive for supply, making developers and contractors think twice before throwing unused materials in the garbage.
Another crucial component to this equation is federal funding. It should be no surprise that the money going to deal with blight has come from the taxpayer. We often think of federal funding as a beacon of hope shining down from the sky, like a savior. But let us not forget that the federal government gets its money from the taxpayer, and so it is often the communities affected by blight who end up having to pay to remove it.
And let us also not forget the consequences of blight on surrounding home values; a report by Temple University Center for Public Policy & Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project estimates that properties within 450 feet of an abandoned property lose anywhere from $3,500 to $7,600 of their value. And so the community ends up paying the price once again for those abandoned properties.
The current system for dealing with blight is an unsustainable one, relying on the taxpayer to pick up the pieces of economic crises. Policymakers and economic developers on the state and federal levels alike need to look closely at how these dollars are being allocated, the efficiency of their spending and the long-term effects of the activities being funded.
They also need to consider what policies may be contributing to blight, and how to prevent it in the future. This could look something like building developers or corporations paying an up-front tax for the removal of their structure once it has reached the end of its life cycle; but that is a conversation for another day.