In addition to being eyesores, vacant and abandoned properties also threaten public safety. These properties can become breeding grounds for criminal activity and arson, placing strain on the city’s resources and police and fire departments – as evidenced by these recent news stories from Detroit:

  • Early Morning Arson Claims Vacant Properties
    Arson investigators are continuing their investigation of eight fires set early last Tuesday morning, all of which were vacant buildings.

  • Police Officer Killed in Shootout at Vacant Duplex
    Earlier this month, one officer was killed and four others wounded while responding to a report of gunshots at a vacant property. According to neighbors, drugs were being sold out of the building.

  • City Leaders Plan Demolitions to Cut Crime
    Buoyed by the police shootings, the Detroit City Council is working with Mayor David Bing to expedite a new city ordinance to hold property owners more accountable for their properties. The Mayor’s office is also using data to examine the correlation between crime and vacancies, which will inform the demolition of 3,000 rundown homes this year that will “cut crime and improve quality of life.”

Last week, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing spoke about his plan for downsizing the city during an interview with a local radio station, which sparked conversations about the practical and legal implications of downsizing Detroit.

Mayor Talks Downsizing: Mayor Bing announced that his plan will involve relocating residents from desolate neighborhoods to more stable areas of the city. This approach breaks from the city’s past practice of putting resources where the need is greatest, or evenly distributing funds across the city. He said,  “You can’t support every neighborhood …Those communities that are stable, we can’t allow them to go down the tubes.”

Community Group Weighs In: A few days later, the Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) weighed in on downsizing. CDAD released its proposed framework for how the Mayor’s administration  should downsize the city. The report, Neighborhood Revitalization Strategic Framework, recommends creating eleven categories for development – ranging from traditional residential areas that preserve older single-family homes, to naturescape areas that convert vacant lots into low-maintenance greenspace, to urban homesteads with older houses on large lots where many city services would no longer be provided. CDAD envisions a Detroit that is more sustainable, with a focus on social equity, environmental integrity, and economic prosperity.

Local Attorney Discusses Legality of Downsizing: Mayor Bing’s downsizing plan will likely face legal challenges, namely the legality of cutting off city services to particular neighborhoods and the use of eminent domain. Yet local eminent domain attorney Alan Ackerman says the downsizing plan is constitutional – because it’s not an economic issue, but rather one of public safety.

Given a 2006 amendment to the state constitution, local governments looking to seize a property must prove that it is blighted and will be for public use. Ackerman believes that Detroit can convincingly make this argument. “Government is there to give basic services to the citizenry. Detroit cannot do that with the present plans of where buildings do and do not exist, he said. “Therefore, to properly apportion police and other public safety you have to remove that house because it blights the rest of the city.

In May 2009, the former Detroit Pistons basketball player Dave Bing became Detroit’s Mayor, and his record over the six months that followed was at least enough to convince voters to return him to office in the regularly-scheduled election that took place in November of the same year. He was initially elected on a 15% turnout, a figure that speaks volumes for the disenchantment of those who reside in a city that is generally portrayed as an economic basket-case, challenged only by a post-Katrina New Orleans for the title of the most crisis-ridden, poverty-stricken city in America. Unlike New Orleans, which can attribute a significant part of its current woe to the damage wreaked by one of the most destructive hurricanes in the nation’s history, Detroit’s perilous state cannot be blamed on a natural disaster. Like most major American cities, Detroit lost much of its population and its tax base in the second half of the 20th century, as the suburbs became the favored location for residential, retail and commercial developments. In recent years, the decline of the auto industry has decimated Detroit on an unprecedented scale. Chrysler and General Motors have been bailed out by the federal government and currently seem set for survival, at least, but this era of globalization is likely to prevent them from ever returning to their former glory, and tens of thousands of jobs have already been lost. Detroit’s famous Motor City moniker is a testament to it having put all of its eggs in one basket. I am not sure if, and to what extent, the city’s authorities tried to diversify Detroit’s commercial base in more prosperous times, but the folly of building a city around a single industry is sadly there for all to see. Today, there is little doubt that Detroit requires a dramatic new strategy, and here is Mayor Bing’s Vision for Detroit:

In light of such a depressing situation, what chance does a former NBA star with no political experience have of reviving the fortunes of this once great city? From the outset, the jury has been very much out. Guests on NPR – – were certainly skeptical, claiming that Bing lacked ideas and that the federal government would not allow him to have any input into the one matter that would affect Detroit’s citizens the most: the auto industry. ESPN, while agreeing that Bing had not laid out a clear agenda for the change he promised, argued that his winners’ mentality was exactly what this city needed to give it a fighting chance of a bright future: It would be easy to accuse the ESPN writer, Jamele Hill, of drawing an overly simplistic analogy between the sporting and political arenas, but his analysis runs deeper than that, and around 900,000 Detroiters must pray that Mr. Hill will be proved right.