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City of Detroit sends message to speculators, issues 700 lawsuits

One common concern amidst Detroit's economic resurgence is the way speculators, many from outside the city, have acquired swaths of land only to sit on it. One WDET segment on Detroit Today estimated that speculators own 20 percent of all parcels in Detroit, but "have no real obligation to insure that land is well kept or fits into an overall neighborhood community."

That is, until recently. According to a Crain's Detroit Business article, the city of Detroit will be filing 700 lawsuits against negligent speculators. Writer Chad Livingood estimates that the number of individuals and companies affected by the lawsuits may climb to 1,500 by November. 

"The lawsuits target banks, land speculators, limited liability corporations and individuals with three or more rental properties in Detroit who typically buy the homes for cheap at a Wayne County auction and then eventually stop paying property tax bills and lose the home in foreclosure."

[For more information on the tax auction and foreclosures, check out Model D's two-part series on the topic]

Speculators swallowed up this land because it was sold, in some cases, for hundreds of dollars. The city had already filed nearly 70 lawsuits in August for owners who had more than $25,000 in unpaid property taxes. 

The article also states that, "the lawsuits do seek to establish a legal means for going after investors who buy cheap homes at auction and either rent them out and not pay the taxes or walk away from the house because it's damaged beyond repair, [attorney Andrew] Munro said.

"'That's the kind of behavior the city is trying to change,' he said."

Detroit Future City lays out framework for dealing with city's abandoned manufacturing sites

The next great challenge the city of Detroit might face? What to do with all its abandoned manufacturing sites. 
 
According to an article in the Detroit Free Press, that's what the Detroit Future City (DFC) Implementation Office will focus on in a new report. 
 
"The numbers alone can stagger," writes John Gallagher. "Detroit contains nearly 900 vacant and mostly abandoned manufacturing sites. They include behemoths such as the old Packard Plant, now in line for a multi-year, multi-million-dollar remake. But more than two-thirds of the vacant factory sites measure less than 10,000 square feet—small tool-and-die shops mostly scattered through the city's neighborhoods."
 
The report, released June 2, notes that, "Many of these buildings abut residential neighborhoods in some of the city's most disadvantaged areas. Without a strategic approach to repurposing these properties, they will remain fallow for years to come, posing threats to public health and safety, and undermining Detroit's recovery."
 
While many challenges remain, the report also notes many successes in repurposing industrial buildings, both local and international. "One example of a recent success was the groundbreaking for automotive parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate’s 350,000-square-foot, $95-million-dollar plant on 30-acres of vacant land on Detroit’s east side. The new facility will generate up to 750 new jobs, 51 percent of which are guaranteed to go to city residents."
 
Read the Detroit Free Press article here. Read the DFC Implementation Office report here

City of Detroit creates Office of Sustainability, names first director

Another in a series of firsts for the administration of Mayor Mike Duggan, the city of Detroit has established an Office of Sustainability, and named Joel Howrani Heeres as its director. 
 
According to a press release, the new department and director will "guide the city's efforts to strengthen the economic, social, and environmental well-being of the city's residents, neighborhoods and businesses."
 
Sustainability has been a priority for this administration. There have been efforts to improve green infrastructure in Detroit, clean up air quality, and promote urban farming, among other initiatives. More were touted in the press release:
 
"Detroit has achieved several sustainability-related milestones in recent years, including the launch of the QLine streetcar, conversion of the city's 59,000 streetlights to LEDs, adoption of green demolition practices for vacant home demolitions, securing $9 million in Federal funding to enhance the city's resiliency, opening a 10-acre solar array at O'Shea Park, and $11.7 million in investments to renovate 40 city parks and playgrounds. Howrani Heeres' appointment and the creation of a sustainability office will support and accelerate these types of projects."
 
Howrani Heeres has lived in Detroit for 13 years and worked in a variety of fields related to sustainability, including as a staff member for EcoWorks Detroit and as managing director of the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office.

New pilot program could rewrite zoning codes for the better

Detroit's outdated zoning codes slow development and prevent businesses from opening in locations they're best suited for. Fortunately, according to the Detroit News, a new "pink zone" pilot program, meant to ease zoning restrictions, could be on the way next summer.

Through a grant from the Knight Foundation, "three multidisciplinary teams will put together visions for walkable, mixed-use activity in three commercial sites in Detroit," writes Christine Ferretti. "Later, the concepts will be tested against the city’s zoning ordinance and building code to identify roadblocks and work with city departments and others to identify strategies for reforms."

Detroit planning director Maurice Cox is fully on board with the plan, and described Detroit's present zoning system as "crazy" and inhibiting development.

This, and other recent reforms, have "earned Detroit a nod in the Wall Street Journal this spring as one of five cities 'leading the way in urban innovation.'"

Detroit Free Press strongly denounces county executives' efforts to derail regional transit

A prominent columnist at the Detroit Free Press, Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Henderson, and the paper's editorial board have come out staunchly against recent efforts to scuttle regional transit by county executives L. Brooks Patterson and Mark Hackel, respectively of Oakland and Macomb counties.

"Twenty-six times this region has tried to create functional transit across three or four counties, and 26 times, we've come up short. Way short," writes the editorial board. "Until 2012, when the state Legislature created a Regional Transit Authority for southeast Michigan. This time, with state support and a rock-solid structure built to harness cooperation among the various parties in the region, things would be different. This time, we would get it right."

But then the two county executives objected to the plan, which had been in the works for many months, two weeks before the millage needed to get approved for the November ballot.

Here's what the editorial board thinks of the last-minute antics: "[R]epresentatives from Oakland and Macomb objected, blindsiding RTA officials and other board members who'd negotiated in good faith. Oakland's representative delivering a 19-page list of grievances, ranging from the quasi-legitimate to the asinine."

Part of their argument is that Oakland and Macomb fail to see the region as a cohesive whole—they are stuck in a balkanized mindset.

Henderson's column, titled "Hackel, Patterson trying to build a wall in S.E. Michigan," demonstrates he feels similarly. Like the editorial board, he questions the timing, and goes point by point through their objections, which he calls "selfish." But again, county executives fail to see that the "dividends pay back region-wide."

He ends the column with a plea: "Time is short. For this to get onto the November ballot, something has to be approved by early August. If that doesn't happen, we're looking at 2018 before another opportunity comes up. And that would be near-criminal neglect. Think of the stranded and isolated lives, kept from opportunity by our lousy transit, that will unfold over those next two years."

A Model D article from last year speculated whether the suburbs would buy in to regional transit. Perhaps, sadly, we have our answer. 

Cleveland's bus rapid transit system could be a model for Detroit

Next fall, residents of Southeast Michigan will have an opportunity to vote on a property tax millage to fund a new regional public transportation system. One of the components of that system is bus rapid transit, or BRT. Since we've never had a system like that in place, it's understandable to wonder what it might look like.

But Cleveland's BRT HealthLine has been around since 2008. And for those wondering, The Detroit Free Press recently published an article with the title, "Curious about bus rapid transit? Check out Cleveland."

There are many benefits and services of HealthLine. "Buses generally arrive at each station every 5-7 minutes during busier times of day," writes Eric Lawrence. "They travel on separate lanes for about 80 percent of the route and get traffic signal preference that is controlled by GPS. Service also runs all day. Level platform boarding makes getting on and off easier. Stations are covered and have seating and message boards, and riders purchase passes ahead of time."

That dedicated lane and traffic signal preference means commutes have been shortened considerably, which has resulted in a 60 percent increase in ridership. This does contribute to a complaint, expressed by rider James Hunt: "He said the 'only downside' to the HealthLine is 'how full it'll get.'"

BRT has had measurable effects on Cleveland's economy as well: "$6.3 billion in economic development," according to experts. HealthLine has been so successful, that it's the only BRT line in the United States to receive a "silver" rating by the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.

If Cleveland is any indicator, it would behoove Southeast Michigan to approve the millage next election.

Emerging leaders convene to talk #solutionsjournalism

As humans, we learn best through stories. So what better way to grapple with the complex history, policy and movements in our region than through great reporting and storytelling?

That's why Metromode, Model D and Metro Matters are thrilled to announce the first convening of our Emerging Leaders Advisory Board. Over the next year, this group of local leaders will meet quarterly and online to advise our solutions journalism coverage of metro Detroit's most pressing issues. The project is made possible with support from the Southeast Michigan Community Foundation.

We received over 50 applications from talented and bright leaders in a broad range of fields from across southeast Michigan. It was a difficult task to select only 19 to serve on the board.

These talented folks came together in early June at the Urban Consulate in Midtown to brainstorm and prioritize the regional issues and solutions that we'll be writing about in the coming months.

They are a group driven by love, passion and pride for metro Detroit.

"I love Detroit and want to contribute as much as I can to the revival of a great city," says board member Jonathan So of Huntington Woods. "Every time someone sees that I'm from Detroit they want to talk about the city and where it is going. We are all ambassadors."

They also want to get involved and make a difference.

"I applied to the board to help shape the future of my city and region," says board member Kate Cherry of Hamtramck. "I hope the project results in greater awareness of urban issues and knowledge of regional growth strategies among people in our area."

They're looking for an opportunity to connect with one another and expand their knowledge.

"I hope that serving on the board will be an opportunity to connect with professionals in the area from a variety of disciplines to hear new takes on regional issues," says board member Sonja Karnovsky of Ann Arbor. "By harnessing our collective abilities and experiences, we can find ways to leverage resources in southeast Michigan."

They even want to help foster leadership among younger residents.

"I want to inspire other millennials to enter politics," says board member, millennial and Madison Heights mayor Brian Hartwell. He's also interested in keeping the area attractive to residents. "Another goal is to retain homegrown talent by giving emerging leaders an opportunity to make a difference here in Michigan. This program will slow the export of new thinkers."

Our first conversation ran the gamut from race and immigration to land use and sprawl to infrastructure, digital justice, civic engagement and more.

Board member Sean Kammer of Pontiac sees political fragmentation as the region's greatest hurdle.

"Political fragmentation has reinforced segregation of the population by race and income more so than it would be if we had stronger regional authorities and more services that are regionally provided," he says. "This fragmentation has led to disparities in public service provision and real estate values that have made some cities more vulnerable to economic recessions than others."

Karnovsky echoes that sentiment.

"This disconnect leads to a lack of resources in parts of the region that need them most," she says. "Money, ideas, and resources don't get shared equitably between parts of the region and this leads to inequality. "

Arquette Palermo sees water as an important regional challenge. 
 
"The impacts of climate change, especially on our water resources,  is a looming issue. This can impact quality of life, disease, economics and so much more, and I think the average citizen does not realize this."

Hartwell sees infrastructure as the top issue facing the region.

"The tragedy unfolding before our eyes is the continued disinvestment of infrastructure in our urban core and inner-ring suburbs for the benefit of far-flung exurbs," he says. 

We'll be digging in to help you understand how these issues affect our daily lives in metro Detroit. We'll also take a careful look at how government, business and citizens are proposing (or already implementing) solutions to address them.

Below is a list of our Emerging Leaders Advisory Board members, as well as a form you can fill out to let us know about solutions to the issues. We want to hear from you!

2016 Solutions Journalism Advisory Board Members

Zubeyda Ahmed, Highland Park
Michele Arquette-Palermo, Orion Township
Mohamed Ayoub, Dearborn
Lauren
Bealore, Southfield
Kate Cherry, Hamtramck
Ghida Dagher, Dearborn Heights
Jon Dones, Detroit
Gillian Gainsley, Ypsilanti
Garlin Gilchrist II, Detroit
Lesley Hairston, Detroit
Melissa Halpin , Northville
Brian Hartwell, Madison Heights
Sean Kammer, Pontiac
Sonja, Karnovsky, Ann Arbor
Ash Nowak, Detroit
Michael Radtke Jr., Sterling Heights
Gabriela Santiago-Romero, Detroit
Jonathan So, Huntington Woods
Jeremiah Wheeler, Detroit

 
Photos by Nick Hagen.

The insidious setback to recovery in Detroit's neighborhoods

In a 4,500-word longform piece for Next City, Detroit author and journalist Anna Clark digs deep into a setback to Detroit's recovery more insidious than high crime rates or a sluggish economy--the mortgage industry.

Clark describes a serious disconnect between prices reached between would-be home buyers and sellers and the appraisals banks conduct before they issue mortgages. In many Detroit neighborhoods, auction sales of tax-foreclosed properties for $500 or $1,000 could be the only available comparables, making it difficult to arrive at appraisals, which are based on sales of nearby homes, that reflect the actual price buyers are willing to pay.

"The result is a system where loans are not available across most of the city," writes Clark. "In Detroit, only 12 percent of home sales are financed, compared to 65 percent in Ferndale and 90 percent in Grosse Pointe. And they are not all at those infamously low price points. An $87,000 house in the Woodbridge neighborhood was recently bought with cash. So was the $1.6 million Fisher Mansion in Palmer Woods."

Clark reports that only 462 single family homes sold in Detroit in 2014 were purchased with a mortgage, and that nearly 87 percent of sales were cash deals, more than double the national average.

To learn about why the conventional mortgage system is failing Detroit and how groups like the Detroit Land Bank Authority and Talmer Bank are working to fix it, read more in Next City.

Washington Post examines 'unconventional' fixes for Detroit's unconventional housing market

 
From low appraisals to a dearth of conventional mortgage lending to a glut of supply (often in desperate need of renovation), Detroit's housing market faces a slew of issues that make it one of the most challenged and unusual in the country.
 
So how do you "restore a functional housing market in a city in which neighborhoods are disappearing, banks aren’t lending and property values are among the lowest in the nation?" That's the question the Washington Post asks in a recent feature story.
 
What they found in Detroit is that unusual circumstances are being met with unusual measures to prop up housing values throughout the city.
 
"Civic and business leaders are targeting eight neighborhoods that they determined have the best chance of turning around," writes the Post's Kathy Orton. "To clear out the inventory of vacant houses, the city is moving aggressively to demolish structures that are beyond repair and auction ones that are salvageable."
 
Read more about efforts to restore the weak housing market in Detroit's neighborhoods in the Washington Post.

Parking enforcement ramps up this week

You may have noticed that parking enforcement in Detroit has been lax over the last few months. That's because the Municipal Parking Department has been allowing local motorists to get acquainted with its new $3.5 million parking system that replaces antiquated meters with state-of-the-art parking technology.
 
Starting Tuesday, however, the free ride (er, park) is over, and "parking enforcement officers…will resume writing tickets citywide for violators of Detroit’s new parking regulations," reports the Detroit News.
 
In addition to having a new way to pay for parking, motorists also have a new way to contest tickets they think are undeserved. "[T]he city has also established a new process of contesting tickets through the website www.ParkDetroit.us, eliminating the need for motorists to physically appear," officials told the Detroit News.
 
Read more: Detroit New

Sick of potholes, Hamtramckans take to the streets with shovels and cold patch


Michigan's roads are in bad -- frankly deplorable -- shape. And thanks to budget cuts, inaction by the state legislature, and voters' unwillingness to approve a tax hike to pay for repairs, our surfaces streets are going to continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.
 
But in Hamtramck, a group of residents fed up with the status quo have decided to take matters – and shovels – into their own hands to improve road conditions in their community.
 
According to Dustin Block of MLive Detroit, "a group of six residents purchased 900 pounds of cold pack and spent the morning filling potholes along Lumpkin Street" on Saturday, July 25. The group hopes to raise $5,000 via a Go Fund Me campaign to pay for additional materials to fix other Hamtramck streets.
 
Read more: MLive Detroit

Can Greece learn from Detroit's example?

While some publications are comparing Detroit to Brooklyn (or at least pointing out how a handful of ex-Brooklynites are finding opportunity in the Motor City), CityLab sees a similarity between Detroit and Greece, the most financially distressed member or the Eurozone.
 
"For all sorts of reasons, a comparison between Greece and Detroit falls short of useful…" writes CityLab's Kriston Capps. "But the coming debate in Greece may nevertheless echo Detroit on the one point: How can Greece afford not to sell off cultural assets when people are suffering?
 
Capps points to the so-called "Grand Bargain" of Detroit's bankruptcy that saved the Detroit Institute of Arts' world class collection from being auctioned to satisfy the demands of creditors as an example Greece's leaders should study as they consider selling cultural artifacts for which the country is famous.
 
Read more: CityLab
 

What if metro Detroit public officials strictly rode transit for three weeks straight?

Imagine a city or region where public officials actually understand the importance of transit because they ride it every day.
 
It actually doesn't require much of an imagination. Starting on June 1, several San Francisco city officials, including Mayor Ed Lee, began to fulfill a pledge to ride public transit for 22 straight days.
 
According to KRON 4, "The challenge, spearheaded by the advocacy group San Francisco Transit Riders, will continue until June 22 and aims to help city officials gain familiarity with public transit and inspire them to improve the experience."
 
Now imagine if metro Detroit's public officials, from county executives to mayors to city council people, undertook a similar challenge. Do you think they'd gain a new appreciation for the challenges faced by transit riders throughout the region and a new perspective on our system's shortcomings? Chances are they would have plenty of time to contemplate these issues and more while they wait on their buses.
 
Read more about San Francisco's transit challenge: KRON 4

Could city ID cards make Detroit more inclusive?

 
Last week, Newark, NJ became the latest U.S. city to issue local ID cards to residents.
 
In a recent story in CityLab, Vicky Gan writes: "In 2007, New Haven, Connecticut, became the first city in the U.S. to offer city IDs, followed by several cities in California (including San Francisco and Los Angeles), Washington, D.C., New York City, and a few others."
 
The thinking goes that city IDs help people who have difficulty presenting documents typically required for obtaining state IDs, namely undocumented immigrants, the recently incarcerated, and homeless people. More recently, however, city ID cards have become ways for municipalities to express gender sensitivity to their residents.
 
In 2009, San Francisco became the first city to issue ID cards that did not specify the holder's gender. In 2014, New York City became the first municipality to issue ID cards that allowed holders to specify their own gender identities.
 
Writes Van, "In a 2013 report on municipal ID programs across the U.S., the Center for Popular Democracy wrote that 'cities that offer ID to their residents regardless of immigration status are making a powerful statement of welcome and inclusion.' The same goes for cities who do so regardless of gender identity."
 
Currently, no cities in the Midwest offer municipal ID cards. Could Detroit become the first?
 
Read more: CityLab

Policy Lab conference to tackle regional transit issues June 3-5 in Port Austin

Last year, a group of young Detroiters hosted Mackinac(ish), a conference in Charlevoix billed as an affordable, accessible alternative to the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual Mackinac Policy Conference (MPC). Registration for MPC costs Chamber members $1,950 and non-members $2,725 to attend. Mackinac(ish) was open to anyone who applied and cost participants a modest sum to cover food and other event expenses.
 
The idea was to get young Detroiters involved in policy discussions relevant to the future of the city and region, as well as build a sense of camaraderie that would be carried back to Detroit. Sessions from MPC were live-streamed at Mackinack(ish), and the group was even visited by Sen. Carl Levin, who stopped by on his way to Mackinac Island. Click here to read Model D's recap of Mackinac(ish).
 
Organizers of Mackinac(ish), now calling themselves After the Storm, are holding another summit June 3-5, this time in Port Austin, Mich. The event has been renamed Policy Lab and will focus on transit and mobility issues facing the metro Detroit region.
 
Friday, May 22, is the final day to apply for a spot at the conference. Those accepted will be asked to pay an $80 registration fee. To apply, click here.
 
For more information on After the Storm and Policy Lab, click here.
34 Public Policy Articles | Page: | Show All
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