Detroit's Abandoned Building Problem Is An Actual 'Blight Emergency,' Says City Manager

Detroit is now undergoing an official "blight emergency," according to an order signed by the city's emergency manager last month. One-fifth of the city's housing stock, approximately 78,000 homes, are vacant.

If emergency sounds too strong, consider the case of Bill Wade, a 61-year-old Detroiter with multiple sclerosis who is paralyzed from the waist down. When he talked to WXYZ-TV, Wade said he lives in fear that the structure will go up in flames and set his house on fire.

“I worry about that house [next door] because if I’m not here and I’m running an errand and that house goes up [in flames], he’s stuck,” Wade's wife Linda explained to the local news station.

According to Reuters, 60 percent of the city's annual 12,000 fires involve blighted and abandoned buildings.

Empty since 2005, the house next to Wade's has been hit by scrappers, and is now a home for rodents and small wild animals, WXYZ reports. Scrapping -- when thieves strip empty and even occupied houses of anything of value, including wiring and plumbing parts -- is such a problem in Detroit that local lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried to battle it with legislation aimed at the scrap metal industry.

Wade's fears are heartbreaking, but they aren't unique issues that Detroiters must grapple with. Take Bill Lemanski, an 87-year-old who's lived in the same Detroit home for more than four decades. On one side, WJBK-TV reports, there's the remains of an abandoned house that caught fire. On the other, a house where a family still lives. It also caught fire though, and they don't have the funds to fix it, leaving Lemanski worried for the fate of his home.

For many young women, blight can represent a different kind of danger. Alyssia Akers, a Detroiter who just graduated high school, was walking home from basketball practice one evening last year when a man grabbed her and started pulling her into an abandoned building with the help of a partner.

"I was screaming, 'stop,' and only thing in my head was, 'Why is no one helping me?'" she told The Huffington Post. "A guy on the other side of the street started yelling 'let her go,' so they released me and ran. I just sat on the ground and cried."

Those are just a few examples: Living on a block with an abandoned home or two is common for Detroiters. There have been several reported instances of sexual assault occurring in abandoned Detroit buildings. While Detroit, which filed for bankruptcy earlier this summer, has precious few resources for dealing with such a widespread problem, the city order may help the city fight blight.

"This blight is an ongoing health and safety risk to every resident, fosters and facilitates crime and unemployment, encourages resident flight from the City, depresses property values and discourages investment in the City," the Aug. 29 order from Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr reads. "The EM has determined that the City's endemic blight creates a public emergency affecting life, health, property or the public peace and constitutes a 'Blight Emergency.'"

The order lifts certain restrictions on licensing for wrecking contractors in order to streamline demolition. According to the Detroit News, the order also lets Orr argue for more federal grant money to be targeted to blight removal.

It also comes just days after the city began using $52 million in federal funding that was allocated to knock down approximately 4,000 vacant houses in Detroit. It's part of Michigan's share of the Hardest Hit Fund subset of Troubled Asset Relief Fund (TARP), and was originally intended for foreclosure relief.

But it's a long way from a solution. The Hardest Hit funds are only usable for certain areas, and unfortunately for Bill Wade, his neighborhood isn't included.

It's hard to imagine his worst fear, as he told it to WXYZ: "dying in my chair here [and] not being able to get out."



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