Detroit officials look to downsize city

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    A fence keeps trespassers out of an abandoned home in Detroit in what was once a thriving middle class area.

    - Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

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    A lot is offered for sale next to an abandoned homes in Detroit.

    - Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

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    A biker passes by an abandoned home in a Detroit neighborhood that was once a thriving middle class area.

    - Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

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    Houses along Detroit streets have become derelict abandoned buildings. There are thousands of abandoned homes in the Detroit area.

    - Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

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    A neighborhood stands with numerous empty lots in Detroit, Mich.

    - Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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    Seats in a downtown restaurant remain empty in the economically struggling city of Detroit.

    - Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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    Pens rest on a table in an empty lobby of a former bank in Detroit.

    - Spencer Platt/Getty Images


Tess Vigeland: In 1950, Detroit was the country's fourth largest city. Nearly two million people called it home. Today, the Motor City has less than half that number. But Detroit still spends close to $3 billion a year to provide city services, even in neighborhoods that are largely abandoned. So local officials are considering a radical idea: shut down whole swaths of the city and move residents from decaying neighborhoods to more viable areas.

Michigan Radio's Sarah Hulett reports.

Sarah Hulett: Elaine Lovett's neighborhood looks like a lot of Detroit. There are some well-kept homes, like hers. But not too far away, there are blocks with more vacant lots than standing homes. And some of those houses are abandoned eyesores. Lovett has lived in this neighborhood since 1965.

ELAINE LOVETT: This is the only neighborhood I know of in the city of Detroit where I can walk after dark. Nobody bothers us. This is one of the safest areas in the city.

But Lovett may soon be asked to leave the neighborhood.

Led by Mayor Dave Bing, Detroit officials have begun looking for ways to shrink the city. Detroit covers nearly 140 square miles. And the city has racked up a $300 million deficit providing services like street lights, fire protection, trash pick-up and police patrols.

Despite repeated requests for an interview, Bing did not comment for this story. But he told local radio station WJR, Detroit cannot afford to maintain services in every neighborhood. Bing said the city has no choice but to downsize.

DAVE BING: If we don't do it, you know this whole city is going to go down. I'm hopeful that people will understand that. If we can incentivize some of those folks that are in those desolate areas, they can get a better situation. If they stay where they are, I absolutely cannot give them all the services that they require.

Bing's plan is to consolidate residents into a limited number of neighborhoods. That way, the city can provide services more efficiently and cheaply. But it's not clear which neighborhoods would be targeted, or how many people would need to relocate.

One idea is to downsize areas with the highest crime rates. Another possibility could be to close down neighborhoods next to the dozens of public schools scheduled to close this year. One of those schools is across the street from Elaine Lovett.

LOVETT: If that's what they want to do with this area, fine. Buy me out of my upside-mortgage, OK, and let me go.

So far, there are no formal plans for how the city would carry out the downsizing -- whether through incentives, buy-outs, or eminent domain. It's also not certain how it would be paid for. Detroit plans to use $20 million from the federal government to help tear down 10,000 vacant buildings over the next three years. But the city will likely need more money, perhaps hundreds of millions more, to relocate residents.

And money won't be the only challenge.

John Mogk teaches law at Wayne State University. He says there will certainly be some people who won't want to leave their homes. And that could mean using eminent domain to force them out.

JOHN MOGK: In 2006 the state of Michigan amended its state constitution, and it prohibited the use of eminent domain to assemble land for economic development. It also made it more difficult to clear blighted neighborhoods.

Mogk says those changes could mean more litigation, and higher relocation costs. There could also be a political cost. Many residents have painful memories of Detroit's previous attempts at urban renewal.

One of them is Ron Scott. He says his family was forced to relocate twice in the '60s -- first to make way for a new housing development, and again when planners decided to build Interstate 75. Scott says this latest plan sounds no different.

RON SCOTT: It's just like the old reservations. You tell the Native Americans we're going to give you land somewhere else, and you move them somewhere else, and then there's no clear understanding as to what's going to happen.

Detroit isn't the first Rust Belt city to try downsizing. After its steel mills closed and many residents fled, Youngstown, Ohio, began offering incentives for remaining residents to move out of decaying neighborhoods.

But now, five years since the plan was adopted, not a single resident has taken the $50,000 relocation incentive.

In Detroit, I'm Sarah Hulett for Marketplace.

See a slideshow of some of Detroit's abandoned neighborhoods here

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In 1950, Detroit was a major city. Then the Left decided to use it as their proof-of-concept for all their social and economic theories; I don't think it's had a Republican mayor since then. This is the result: living proof that progressivism Does Not Work. You'd think they would have learned, but as this story shows the city government's first instinct for solving the problem the city's current state represents is to add yet more regulation.

Legislation to prevent the original collapse of this region must be enacted before this 'cancer' spreads to other major American cities - even Canadians took pride in Detroit as a cultural and industrial center and we depended on the industry there for trade and commerce! What the Hell happened? Will it happen to other cities in America? How can we save Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, from this 'Cancer"? These are also very important questions. It seems a great sorrow that before the forests have been able to replace the timbers that built Detroit, mankind has deserted the buildings and left a shambles. Where did we go wrong?

DS, it isn't clear from the piece but this is not about convenience. It is due to the city's inability to provide basic, essential city services. Sadly, this is a plan well past its prime. There are areas of the city with a handful of homes per square mile, less than would qualify as rural. Except for the grid of roads and type of trash, you'd think you were in rural America. Prairie animals have even returned. Detroit spends millions of dollars a year to provide sewer, water, police, and other services to those low density areas. It is a misallocation of resources, causes the city to spread its already thin resources more thinly, and run in the red. It does a disservice to all others who live in the city. Really, it does. In all senses of fairness, this plan is better than the status quo and will ultimately be better for the city and all its residents as a whole. You are right in that nobody should be forced from their homes. Rather, the plan should be to end city services to some areas, and provide incentives and cash to homeowners in areas with no city services to give up their homes voluntarily. Some may see it as a Hobson's choice for those people, but I think the city is in the same position today. Detroit has a choice to institute this plan or stop functioning altogether. Many I know would support breaking the city up entirely. Detroit can't raise taxes any higher as the folks and businesses who could afford higher taxes are already over burdened or have fled. For example, I have a cousin in one of the few very nice neighborhoods in Detroit and another in Troy, which is considered to have the best school district in the state. The cousin in Detroit pays about four times the property tax as the cousin in Troy. The home in Troy is worth more. No matter what happens, it will suck and the poor will be disproportionately affected.

I think it's wrong to make citizens relocate because it's convenient for the city. Every person should have the right to live wherever they want. Many people have memories in their childhood homes and how can you force someone to give that all up?

DETROIT was 5th in population, behind New York,
Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, in 1950.
The statement would be correct for 1940.

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