Widespread home demolition not only can stabilize Detroit neighborhoods, but make them safer and lead to revitalization, argues urban planning scholar Alan Mallach.
Mallach has studied Detroit extensively and wrote an influential paper in 2012, “Laying the Groundwork for Change,” that helped provide the rationale for the ongoing, federally funded demolition blitz in Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Pontiac, Grand Rapids and other cities nationwide.
Mallach also lobbied federal Treasury officials to allow cities to use money from the Hardest Hit Fund – established in 2010 to help homeowners following the 2008 housing crash – for demolitions. He pushed for a targeted approach, arguing that blighted homes are “health and safety hazards” and empty lots are easier to maintain.
Mallach wrote the paper as a fellow for the Brookings Institute. He’s now a senior fellow at the Flint-based Center for Community Progress, a national nonprofit that advocates for investment in vacant spaces.
Bridge Magazine spoke with him by phone. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Bridge: Let’s get down to it. You are a proponent of widescale demolitions.
Mallach: Yes. I saw a piece recently where I was referred to as a cheerleader for demolitions. I admit that I have played an important role in getting this whole thing started but … I’ve never said demolition in and of itself is going to solve anyone’s problems. You can’t get around the fact that demolition, unfortunately in a lot of the cases, is necessary. But you’ve got to do more. It’s got to be part of a larger strategy.
Is that what’s happening in Detroit, a demolition-only strategy?
It’s not a demolition-only strategy. It certainly looks like it’s a demolition-heavy reality. To be fair to Detroit, the city’s planning people are trying to figure out more proactive, affirmative strategies for a number of key areas in the strategy … such as for the Fitzgerald neighborhood that clearly tries to go beyond demolition and go toward a more proactive strategy to stabilize that area. [Editor’s note: The Fitzgerald project is a $4 million project plans to landscape 192 vacant lots and rehab 115 vacant homes in the northwest Detroit neighborhood.]
The jury is out on where this is going and how successful it will be. But at least they are thinking about this stuff… One of the question marks is does the city have the fiscal resources and is there market demand to get substantial stuff to happen in other areas?
How should this be done and how closely is Detroit hewing to that model?
I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year asking the question: What is it that leads a neighborhood to revive? … The most significant factor is the existence of a pretty intact physical texture of the neighborhood. If a neighborhood gets carved up by too many vacancies, at some point, its ability to revive becomes seriously compromised.
Demolition can really start to work against a neighborhood’s prospects of revival. Does that mean you shouldn’t demolish? The answer is no. The problem that cities like Detroit have to confront is that a lot of these houses simply will not find enough people to live in them in a short enough period to save the house. That’s a reality.
You really need to think about which neighborhood are you going to focus on for revitalization and which areas are you essentially going to thin out. In Detroit, it’s clear there’s already a lot of areas that are already significantly thinned out.
The biggest thing you should do is think about future prospects for different areas for revival. If (the neighborhood is) close to Midtown it’s going to have a better shot than if it’s five miles away.
Your research has found that 178,000 homes were demolished in Detroit from 1970 to 2000. There’s been tens of thousands more since. That’s a staggering number. Is the city better off because of it?
This is where it gets complicated. Who knows. I think you could certainly ask that question. But the fact is, between 1950 when it peaked in population at nearly 2 million and today, Detroit has lost 1.3 million people.
The theory that if those houses had been left standing, people would have moved into them and Detroit wouldn’t have lost population, frankly, it’s not tenable. People were moving out of Detroit for all kinds of reasons. Not because their houses were being demolished from under them.
Imagine if the demolitions didn’t happen. Imagine Detroit with a half-million structures today, with 300,000 of them empty. What would that city look like? I’m not sure that’s not even worse than what Detroit currently looks like.
That’s the crux of the problem: These (Rust Belt) cities have lost hundreds of thousands of households.
Detroit has spent tens of millions of dollars on demolitions in the past few years. But some research suggests they haven’t even kept pace with the number of houses that have fallen into disrepair over that time and now need to be demolished. Is this just a vicious cycle?
It is a vicious cycle, and the only way you break the vicious cycle is by changing the basic economics of demand.
The reason houses are still being abandoned in Detroit is because people either can’t maintain them or people don’t want them. The reasons for that may have to do with poverty or because people who have any choice don’t want to live in neighborhoods and just walk away from properties. Unless you change those dynamics of poverty and market demand, you’re not going to change the underlying picture.
At some point, you may get down to a Detroit which has finally shrunk to the point where it’s stable, but I’m not sure that point will necessarily come.
Can the comeback of downtown and Midtown can have any stabilizing impact on the neighborhoods?
Depends on the neighborhood. What’s happening in downtown and Midtown is neat – I don’t underestimate it – but it has an incremental effect moving outward. It’s not likely to have much of an impact on a neighborhood three to five miles away. You have some emerging pockets in an area like Corktown or West Village, but huge parts of the city are not affected by downtown and Midtown.
But there has already been a ripple effect in areas like the North End. Why can’t progress just keep spreading from one neighborhood to the next?
The question is how much demand actually exists for the city’s product. Which in this case is houses. How much demand is there to actually generate a revival?
Given the huge size of Detroit and the extent to which it’s shrunk, whatever ripples you see moving out from the central core are going to be very limited.
There will be some. But it’s not going to be constant growth, demand, revival and rehab at any kind of fast pace. The number of people who want to buy a house in a Detroit neighborhood just isn’t there. The sheer scale is daunting.
OPPOSING VIEW: Detroit wants to demo 40,000 homes. It won’t fix much.