An Epidemic of Blight Collides With a Pandemic

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Today

The pandemic forced policymakers to, momentarily, move beyond treating the symptoms of blight and confront underlying causes of housing instability—things like tax foreclosures and evictions. It would have looked ridiculous to respond to a pandemic by insisting to knock down more vacant houses, faster.

The pandemic may have put things in starker relief, but it has always been the case that treating the end stage symptoms of tax foreclosure and eviction by demolishing the consequences of those systems and expecting that would somehow stop new vacant homes from popping up, or make highly distressed neighborhoods more desirable, makes no sense.

1,600 demolitions in the 48205 zip code didn’t reduce the number of vacant homes. And yet when market demand for housing soared, the presence of those vacant homes proved not to be a deterrent, either. Rehab cost figures that didn’t work in 2019 suddenly worked in the market of 2021 and the homes got rehabbed.

We should regret demolishing as much as we have. How many homes looked unviable in 2016 market terms that, today, would have been eagerly rehabbed, absorbing housing demand? 

Moreover, we should absolutely regret that tax foreclosures and evictions weren’t stopped sooner—as there’d be less of a need to rehab destroyed homes so they can be rented back to the families of the people who used to own them.

Tomorrow

The moratoriums that were so beneficial have largely ended at this point. But beyond the immediate benefits they provided, they also created breathing room. Without the pressure of constant evictions and annual tax foreclosure auctions, it was possible to focus on reform.

In tax foreclosure, Pay As You Stay was passed into law, creating a way for homeowners in poverty to retroactively cancel the majority of their property tax debt. The Detroit Tax Relief Fund was created to pay off whatever remained. A right to counsel ordinance was passed by Detroit’s city council and a fund established to pay for representation of tenants facing eviction. New, better-funded repair programs will address more housing conditions. These are all much more potent tools to fight back what ravaged areas like the 48205 zip code from 2014 to 2020.

And yet, we’re clearly in an era of high volatility and uncertainty. The threats that distressed areas like the 48205 zip code faced in years past may not be the same as the ones they face in years to come. 

Whatever comes next, if we don’t want to relive the mistakes and futile policies of 2014–2020, we’re going to have to figure out the difference between treating symptoms and addressing causes.

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