Detroit’s 78,000 vacant properties represent the most extreme housing blight in the nation, but it is not a lonely example. Philadelphia and New Orleans are struggling with large inventories of vacant properties as well. An estimated 40,000 vacant properties are located in Philadelphia neighborhoods now abandoned due to unemployment and massive foreclosures.
Developers in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Louisiana aim to turn distressed neighborhoods into attractive places to live for a new generation of homeowners and renters.
In Michigan, the partnership is creating solutions that recognize mortgage financing, housing construction and urban planning are co-dependent, according to insiders. The plan is to address blight in a collaborative way following the “place making” model.
“Place making” is a self-explanatory philosophy, says Jamie Schriner-Hooper of the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan. “In a nutshell it’s about taking a place you can’t wait to leave and turning it into a place you can’t wait to get into.”
The partnership is using this philosophical approach to create a final action plan that includes specific community and housing development recommendations.
“We are looking at form-based codes, such as building codes,” she explained, as well as how to establish an appropriate density for buildings, create mixed-use, mixed-income developments, and assess how members of the community, real estate investors and builders are interacting within that form.
“It’s about building unique communities, about going into a community and knowing exactly where you are, knowing for instance that you’re in midtown Detroit. It’s about looking at how we can help support creating communities with a strong sense of place that are vibrant and where people want to live.”
Research findings indicate most generations prefer to live in more dense environments with easily accessible services that are equally convenient for job searchers and retirees, Schriner-Hooper says. “People want places that are friendly to the new millennial lifestyle. Older people may be interested in downsizing, but still want to live in a more walkable area.”
“Place making” philosophy supporters include Treasury, which in July 2013 granted $100 million from the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program's Hardest Hit Fund to MSHDA. Part of the fund will be used to demolish vacant properties in the Detroit area and to construct new homes.
Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Rock Ventures of Quicken Loans, probably is the strongest supporter of the place-making approach. Headquartered in Detroit, Quicken Loans has been actively supporting recovery efforts. The online mortgage lender has purchased thousands and thousands of commercial properties that must be demolished. It already hasinvested $1.3 billion to revitalize Detroit—far exceeding Treasury funds.
Cullen, who heads the Opportunity Detroit campaign, is credited by peers for helping spearhead the relocation of 11,500 employees to downtown Detroit and for publicly promising to further contribute to the city’s demolition and/or revitalization effort.
Detroit and the state of Michigan “have made great strides in using one-of-a-kind place-making strategies,” and collaborating with urban land trusts and urban land banks to create new opportunities in Detroit’s distressed low-income communities, said Bernie Mazyck, chair of the National Alliance of Community Economic Development Associations. “Necessity is the mother of invention” and the results so far speak for themselves.
Various media have reported recent home price gains in metro Detroit in September. Data confirm the place-making approach is working and indicate a comeback is possible even in the hardest-hit markets.
Earlier in October community development professionals from around the country gathered in Detroit to examine what strategies are working in Detroit. The ongoing discussion between housing experts from around the country helped the Michigan partnership and local lenders to identify the best ideas so far, Cullen says.
Change, however, will take time. The first phase of demolitions alone will take about 18 months to complete, says Schriner-Hooper.