Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 22, 2013

Jack Lessenberry: Digital response to Detroit's blight problem


Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — To put it mildly, Detroit has a lot of problems. The city is bankrupt, struggling and full of abandoned buildings.

Many are buildings that need to be torn down. However — exactly how many of those are there? No one really knows.

“They often use the number 78,000,” said Glenda Price, one of the three co—chairs of a high—powered task force on blight. However, she added, soon we should know exactly how many buildings need to come down, as well as the state of every structure in the city.

Starting this week, three—person teams are fanning out across the city, surveying and photographing each of estimated 350,000 parcels of land. They intend to let neither snow, sleet or neighborhood pit bulls keep them from their work.

They hope to complete their task by the end of January, when Data Driven Detroit, a non—profit demographic firm, will assemble them into a searchable data base.

“This will be given to the city, and hopefully, constantly maintained and updated,” said Price, a Philadelphia native in her early 70s who came to Detroit in 1998 to revitalize Marygrove College, a small, struggling Roman Catholic institution.

She succeeded in doing that, with the help of an innovative and profitable distance learning program. By the time she retired in 2006, she found she had fallen in love with her adopted city. By then, she had a reputation for being a can—do administrator more interested in getting the job done right than in who gets the credit.

Naturally, Glenda Price soon found herself in demand.

Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed her to Detroit’s financial advisory board, as part of the “consent agreement” meant to help Detroit try to avoid being taken over by the state.

That effort failed, but Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr kept the board, and divided it into teams. Her team, which she chairs with Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and a community activist named Linda Smith, is charged with getting a handle on blight.

What this is really all about, she said, was life in Detroit after bankruptcy — something that the emergency manager intends to outline in the proposed “plan of adjustment” he will present to Steven Rhodes, the federal judge presiding over all this.

Orr expects to leave town by the end of next September, and his goal is to have the bankruptcy completely finished by then.

But what really matters is to have a plan going forward to keep the city solvent and on a path to — if not immediate prosperity — better things. Nobody knows how much it would cost to bring down all the buildings that need to be demolished; when pressed, she said it could come to a billion dollars — though, again, no one knows.

What may be even more important is finding the money and the people needed to repair the buildings that still can be saved.

Price noted that the city has some federal funds that can be used for demolition; it also may be easier to attract private foundation gifts to erase blight once the scope of the problem is fully known, and the city offers a clear plan to do something about it.

A longtime college administrator, Price knows the first step to a solution is always identifying the problem. A serious and dignified woman, she is not given to bubbly boosterism.

Yet she says that she is more optimistic than ever about her adopted city’s future. “I think this is a very exciting time for Detroit,” she told me. “I feel there are so many options and opportunities.”

Let’s hope the city makes the most of them.

One step forward; one back: Sadly, meanwhile, the Michigan State Senate took action that will, in effect, help criminals in Detroit.

That’s right. State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D—Detroit) worked for three years to forge a compromise with the Republican majority in the Michigan House to do something about scrap metal thieves.

For years, gangs of crooks have ripped apart vacant houses to tear out copper wiring and other metal that could be converted into quick cash. This year, the House passed a bill she sponsored that would have required a three—day waiting period before people could be paid for three commonly stolen scrap metal items: catalytic converters; window air conditioners; and copper wire.

It also required dealers to take down the license plates of people bringing those items in and pay them by check.

That has sharply reduced crime in other states. But here, Republicans in the state Senate stripped out those requirements, in favor of a toothless “registry” maintained by the dealers themselves.

Why they did that wasn’t clear, though it is likely scrap metal dealers didn’t want the bother of changing the way they work.

Tlaib then said she‘d vote to kill her own bill, and that was that. Though angry, she vowed to again try “to pass a tough law that will actually deter scrap metal theft so we can again have safe, vibrant communities where we can live, work and raise our families.”

One thing for sure: You can’t say she’s a quitter.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.