There were 18.8 million vacant U.S. homes at the end of the third quarter, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But the only way to slash their ranks effectively may be to bulldoze millions of homes that make up blighted neighborhoods. Entire districts of homes, including more than 10,000 in one neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan are under consideration by one government plan, including foreclosures, homes listed for sale and vacation homes.
The radical idea is the brainchild of a Genesee County treasurer, which includes Flint, Michigan, one of the poorest cities in America. The concept was explained to President Barack Obama during his campaign, and now a powerful group of charities want him to apply the concept in 50 cities identified in a Brookings Institute think tank report.
They include cities that are part of America’s former rust belt, where steel companies made fortunes before the business was out-sourced to a large extent, and now have tens of thousands of neighborhood homes that have turned into rotting uninhabitable slums. They include Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Memphis.
Karina Pallagst, director of the Shrinking Cities in a Global Perspective program at the University of California, Berkeley says there’s both a cultural and political taboo when it comes to admitting decline of cities in America. “Places like Flint have hit rock bottom. They’re at the point where it’s better to start knocking a lot of buildings down,” she said.
In Detroit plans call for the city to split mostly deserted areas into a collection of small urban neighborhoods to make them more appealing with more green space, including parks and other recreation areas. “The real question is not whether these cities shrink. We’re all shrinking,” said Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee. “But whether we let it happen in a destructive or sustainable way? Decline is a fact of life in Flint. Resisting it is like resisting gravity.”
Flint is located sixty miles north of Detroit and is the original home of General Motors. Decades of poor times and corrupt local governments in many communities have taken its tool on Michigan. Plans quietly being administered with aid from the Obama administration call for neighborhoods to be bulldozed. Detroit’s mayor has vowed to demolish 3,000 homes by year’s end, and another 7,000 in the next three years.
The mayor’s success is being closely monitored by other community leaders in Philadelphia, Memphis, Baltimore and Cleveland, where homes in some blighted neighborhoods have already been bulldozed after they were purchased under special federal programs with government funds.
Blocks of homes in Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh sit rotting mostly deserted with only two or three homes in blocks that are inhabited. The rest have been vacated by foreclosures, taken back by mortgage companies and banks but sitting abandoned or burned down by arsonists. They become magnets for gangs, drug addicts and garbage.
Foreclosures were included in part of the Census Bureau report with 3.6 million such properties vacant in the third quarter. A year ago the number was 3.4 million residential properties.