Thursday, January 24, 2008

Where I Was

This past semester was extremely busy for me, as I was working on a Masters' project that focused on vacant houses on the east side of Detroit. The neighborhood in Detroit that we did a closer analysis of the housing stock has been especially devastated by the sub-prime mortgage crisis; in a neighborhood with 4,000 houses, over 1,000 have been abandoned since 2005, with the majority of owners losing their houses to mortgage or tax foreclosure.

Part of responsibilities for this project included taking photographs of houses for our report. It seemed that the weather was superb every time I went out to do work in the neighborhood or take some photos, even in late November. I love walking urban neighborhoods, and I spent a couple of afternoon photographing and inventorying houses. It was amazing that houses, such as the one pictured above, which once were sold for almost $90,000 have been abandoned, and are now considered worthless. Many houses in the neighborhood, if not abandoned, are available for sale, and the prices are so incredibly low, making you realize the desperation of both the sellers and banks to get these houses of their hands.

The report, which was finished up in late December, discusses strategies, both neighborhood-based and longer-term, that communities can use to encourage the reoccupation of vacant houses. If you think that this is a problem reserved for Detroit, you are wrong. Abandoned housing is a problem in many cities (big or small), and is also becoming a enormous challenge for suburbs. As this New York Times article notes, even the most affluent suburbs such as Shaker Heights in metropolitan Cleveland are not immune to vacant houses.

This was a sobering project to work on. However, I also learned a great deal about the remarkable strength of neighborhoods; residents to both sides of the house pictured above were leaders in efforts to get this house torn down so that a new residence could be built. In a state where the state government is incapable (both Democratic and Republican legislature share the blame) of creating any effective policy, whether providing a long-term structurally sound budget or effective land-use planning, and local governments are starved for revenue, it is heartwarming to see neighborhood action in places such as in the east side of Detroit.


Jon Vander Plas said...

What a challenge. I read some of the report. Keeping the homes in good condition so they can be sold (and occupied) seems to be a tough job. Is Habitat for Humanity (or similar organizations) interested in taking on some of these houses? It seems to me, that in Michigan's real estate market, there will be little money to be made by private developers.

PB said...

There is a neighborhood CDC that has done some rehab work, although right now there are many more houses needing work.

Perhaps the biggest problem for developer is getting a clean title to vacant properties. This can take a long time, tie up the courts, and cost $$. Once this happens, developers can actually make a decent profit, especially since the neighborhood is in an enterprise zone (ie-no property taxes for 12 years, hence a developer can raise the price a bit more).