Saturday, June 14, 2014

Revitalize Detroit?

I took part in another Freedom Friday protest yesterday. We met at the Detroit water department. From there we went to Campus Martius and on to Bank of America. Since there was scaffolding in the sidewalk, someone suggested we go in. I wasn't so sure of that, especially after more security guards showed up. I edged away from the group, though no incidents. The downtown branch is in a beautiful building with a high arched main floor. I worked across the street when I moved to the area long ago and thought this room needed a pipe organ. Which means great acoustics for a protest.

Along the way I learned a couple things. The city pensioners are currently voting on whether to accept the "Grand Bargain" put together to get Detroit out of bankruptcy. Those at the protest were well aware that pensioners were mailing their ballots back, not to Detroit, but to California. Why there? So they could be counted in secret? Do we need Jimmy Carter and his international election observers?

Dan Gilbert made his first wad of money through his company Quicken Loans. A few years ago he moved his operations from the suburbs to a new building on Campus Martius in downtown Detroit. He invited lots of companies to follow him and he's bought up several buildings in the area and refurbished them. In many eyes he has been a major force in revitalizing the downtown area. And yet…

Quicken Loans was a big player in the mortgage boom leading up to the start of the Great Recession. Gilbert was a good enough leader that his company didn't go bankrupt as many of the small mortgage players did. QL was also a big player in the foreclosure storm that sucked Detroit dry.

Gilbert created a blight removal project, which I've mentioned before. The project started with surveying all 340,000 residential and commercial properties in the city to determine what is blighted and what is salvageable. They determined some 70,000 homes are blighted. A big report was issued a few weeks ago documenting how the project intends to eradicate all that blight over the next five years. But the report says nothing about what caused the blight or that Gilbert is a part of that cause.

Gilbert also seems to be closely involved in a land bank. Other cities, such as nearby Flint, have used this to great effect. The sale of one property supplies money to do what's necessary (renovate or demolish) to another property so it could also be sold. This Detroit land bank has about 17,000 properties in it.

That leaves many pondering this scenario: Gilbert was a big player in foreclosures, which caused a great deal of blight (kick the homeowner out and scrappers quickly turn the house into blight). Gilbert steps forward with a plan to remove the blight (taking a tiny bit of responsibility, perhaps?). Gilbert's land bank ends up controlling most of the now vacant property. Does that mean Gilbert is able to develop it, restocking Detroit with nice housing that the current impoverished residents wouldn't be able to afford?

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