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All those empty buildings in Detroit
August 25, 2011 8:01 PM   Subscribe

Is this the answer? We've had our share of photo montages of Detroit... What to do with those empty houses? Mitch might have a viable idea here.
posted by tomswift (51 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
America continues to experience the invisible fistfuck of the market, because the alternative sounds like socialism, and socialism is only for the rich.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:10 PM on August 25, 2011 [11 favorites]


Socialism! Compassionate, daring, problem solving socialism!

Also, the working poor? I haven't seen that term used since I studied up on Dickensian England. Or perhaps I've just been glossing over it until now. Or perhaps everything old is new again. Like Feudalism.
posted by Slackermagee at 8:10 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


It seems like a good idea, but wouldn't all those other houses have the same problems as the one they're living in, if they're just sitting out there abandoned?

When I was growing up we lived next to a mostly abandoned mental health complex with lots and lots of big empty buildings. A lot of them were very fancy and nice looking; one of them used to be some kind of theater. I asked, it's a shame these buildings just sit there, can't they fix them up and let homeless people live there? But the problem is that they would have cost millions of dollars to restore to decency. It's cheaper and safer to build them new. Although not as aesthetically pleasing. (Not that that has anything to do with housing people who need homes.) Both options are impossible without raising capital though and where's that supposed to come from.
posted by bleep at 8:13 PM on August 25, 2011


Mitch Albom is a puddle of treacle with a keyboard.

Honestly, it's hard to even tell what he is saying. I think these people should not owe back rent given the housing conditions. I also think the government should (and to an extent does) subsidize housing. I am not sure I feel that people who lose their money to scam artists and don't pay their rent (the reasons are unexplained) should be entitled to stay in a particular place -- which sometimes prevents them from being spruced up.

I may be wrong, but Mitch seems to conclude that they shouldn't be there either, because the place was uninhabitable. "And it cries out for action." Yeah, too bad he can't stop typing long enough to think about what it is.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:19 PM on August 25, 2011 [10 favorites]


A big chunk of abandoned urban houses have been empty for years and would take >$100K just to make livable.
posted by octothorpe at 8:20 PM on August 25, 2011


For some people to feel they have more, other people have to have less. And be made to feel so.

"The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing." - John Berger
posted by Smedleyman at 8:23 PM on August 25, 2011 [23 favorites]


Yeah, what they said. I'd be all for housing vouchers (and why aren't they on section 8? Too much income?) but no way Snyder lets that through.

Also, why are they paying $560 for that? There's cheaper three bedrooms on Woodward.
posted by klangklangston at 8:25 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


"The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. "

I would be interested in the basis for this. I am familiar with the recent statistics about the distribution of American wealth, but I also seem to be remembering something about nobility and merchant classes and serfs and whatnot. Perhaps there was a natural scarcity of noble blood?
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:29 PM on August 25, 2011


Let them eat cake.
posted by schmod at 8:36 PM on August 25, 2011


Clearly what this couple needs is to have a few more children.
posted by brain_drain at 8:37 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


Pretty empty idea. Ok, no American family should have to live with the smell and health hazards of their mold-infested basement. I can get on board with that idea. Is the answer moving into a building that might be worse, even if free? Even if all these abandoned homes were gems, the idea is fraught with problems. I have a feeling the easiest thing to do for a family that wants a truly abandoned home in Detroit is probably squat until forced out.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:40 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I like the demolish and create farmland idea better. Detroit has urban misplanning problems that not even a tax base can fix.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:50 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


People without homes.

Property without owners.

somewhere there's a solution here. If we can get past the nay saying, we might be able to make things better.
posted by tomswift at 8:55 PM on August 25, 2011 [5 favorites]


Just don't click on the comments section. At least, not if you've had the misfortune to be born with a sense of compassion and want everyone to have access to basic human needs. Good god. Comments about how government housing is part of Obama's big plan to track and number us. Comments that reek of "I got mine, fuck everyone else."

As bad as Albom is (I don't think even he knew what he was trying to say), he was at least trying to start a conversation about the problem. The commenters seem to be saying there is no problem, and he's bad for imagining there is.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:00 PM on August 25, 2011 [6 favorites]


why aren't they on section 8?

To get on the waiting list for Section 8 is extremely difficult. There is a significant backlog on the lists. When the lists are open to applications, it's usually for only a few days every couple of years - and those days are not well advertized. To stay on the lists while moving from place to place is also a challenge. Section 8 is handled locally, so in major metropolitan areas such as Phoenix-Metro Area there can be as many as a dozen different lists from the individual cities and the county making up the area. Different cities/counties handle applications in different manners - some have online applications, most are a variation of calling (demon-dialing) a phone number during three days of open applications and then only getting further information by physically visiting the office. Communication to the applicant is minimal at best. Baring a natural disaster such as Katrina bumping the list, the wait is at least two years but don't hold your breath. It's a lot of hurry up and then wait. And wait. And wait.
posted by _paegan_ at 9:02 PM on August 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


The working poor don't want those houses. The properties are not just abandoned, but for the most part, condemned. Huge swathes of the vacant areas have been disconnected from services like water and electricity.

At this point, it seems the only viable solution would be to raze the remaining rubble, plant some trees, and call it a national park.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:03 PM on August 25, 2011


somewhere there's a solution here.

Do you not have squatters in the US?

I'd've thought the more usable of all of the abandoned housing stock would already have been colonised. Where's that frontier spirit and all that? Is this why that FPP about the bloke in Texas using adverse possession laws was such a barney?
posted by pompomtom at 9:03 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Do you not have squatters in the US? "

Only until the deputies arrive...
posted by MikeMc at 9:09 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Putting a family in an abandoned home is a nice idea. But they need to put families in several entire neighborhoods. The mayor's plan to demolish 1/4-1/3 of the city may seem cynical, but people wont move back to individual homes in neighborhoods that have been abandoned for decades.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:14 PM on August 25, 2011


Only until the deputies arrive...

Isn't squatting a civil matter? Why would deputies have any influence?
posted by pompomtom at 9:22 PM on August 25, 2011


This is the kind of column I picture the author writing at 29 minutes to deadline, having done no research (besides maybe googling "abandoned buildings detroit"), with a crack pipe hanging out of his mouth while he types with one hand and fires up his mini-torch with the other. While all the while precariously balancing his crack smoke stained laptop on his knee. He may or may not be juggling cats with his feet.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:27 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


...but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.

This hurt my head
posted by the noob at 9:28 PM on August 25, 2011


Isn't squatting a civil matter? Why would deputies have any influence?

it's the US pompomtom, we'll have to wait until we see it on Cops to gain a clear understanding.
posted by the noob at 9:30 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think this is where I put on my landlord hat. The thing is, the market is handling this problem. I'm no apologist for capitalism, but what we have is enormous supply and a lot less demand than you would expect. People can't get mortgages, but they can rent, and the economics of renting means that it's a market that is both less and more elastic than the homeowner market. Rents are flat and attractive. This is great for landlords (I continue to hope), not so great for the Great American Ideal of One Family, One House. With the way the bottom fell out of the housing market, you would think that more people -- even Mitch Albom, for example -- would have come to the conclusion that homeownership is not necessarily the platonic utopia it has been made out to be for decades. In fact, the numbers are not always there, and a lot of people -- not just the supposedly greedy strivers -- end up buying more house than they can afford. It can bankrupt a family. It's a gamble that maybe not everyone should roll the dice on, given less expectation of career stability.

So in a lot of ways, families like this have a lot more options than they seem to be aware of. Renting is not that bad a choice. True, these particular folks have some challenges, but they would be better addressed by a housing agency that makes sure there is some diversity in the rental market. Not to mention building codes that make sure that apartments are not mold-infested. Yeah, that's a challenge, too, given Detroit's tax base, but it's not impossible.
posted by dhartung at 9:36 PM on August 25, 2011


Wow, _paegan_, I had figured that my experience in Michigan (granted, Ann Arbor) was more typical, at least for Michigan — getting section 8 is a pain in the ass, but it's more like getting unemployment or food stamps. But given that Detroit's government is deeply, deeply dysfunctional, without a ward heeler this family could totally be SOL.
posted by klangklangston at 9:52 PM on August 25, 2011


Yes squatting is legal in the U.S. In order to get evicted, a landlord needs have you evicted. If the property is abandoned, then there's no landlord to do that. this story was all over the news a while back about a guy squatting in a million+ dollar home that had been foreclosed on.
posted by delmoi at 10:22 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have some vague fantasy of going to Detroit, buying one of those buildings, and starting an artists warehouse collective. But I'd probably need guns and barbed wire to defend it. Which isn't wholly unappealing....
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:54 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]




Yes squatting is legal in the U.S. In order to get evicted, a landlord needs have you evicted. If the property is abandoned, then there's no landlord to do that. this story was all over the news a while back about a guy squatting in a million+ dollar home that had been foreclosed on.


yeah there's lots of acceptance of squatters here and it seems like a good solution
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:56 PM on August 25, 2011


No.

Give them to Tea Partiers. Seriously. I seriously suggest that a bill be sponsored, to recognize the concerns and troubles of the underrepresented and unappreciated mainstream American population, and reward them for their hard work and loyalty with the opportunity to benefit, as others have done, from governmental largesse.

Eat that wedge, Repugs.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:57 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


IIRC, the city of Detroit has serious budget problems and cannot afford to provide police and fire protection in the abandoned areas.

Letting the poor squat there just makes them targets for brigands.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:48 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Detroit has urban misplanning problems that not even a tax base can fix.

This is true. Jane Jacobs predicted the death of Detroit in the, what, late 50's early 60's simply based on the planning of its residential neighborhoods.
posted by BinGregory at 11:55 PM on August 25, 2011


The house I grew up in in Detroit was by far the nicest house in which I've ever lived. I'm comparing it to prefab subdivision homes in which it's possible to fall through a wall after a stumble, NYC rattraps, and "luxury" condos where you can feel a cold wind rushing through the doorjamb in winter.

In contrast, our house in Detroit was well built. It was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We had four bedrooms, an attic and a basement, a dining room and a kitchen, and two living rooms. The house had been well cared for for nearly 100 years -- from the original inhabitants (European immigrant/descendant Ford workers?) through my family, part of the first wave of middle class blacks to settle in Detroit.

By the early 80s, even after the unrest of the 60s, the neighborhood may have been in decline, but it's not like 1967 marked the exact instant the entire city became a bombed out wasteland. The neighborhood homeowners were mostly elderly, and it was child paradise: imagine having candy and ice cream distributing grandparents who are eagerly waiting for your visit so they can spoil you half to death in every single house on your block. That was my reality.

It tears me up that such a great atmosphere is completely wasted now. Not just in terms of the grand old abandoned buildings, but more because that community of really good people -- people who'd watch out for each other and take care of themselves and their neighborhood, people who were always striving for self improvement -- they're just gone. They live other places, and I doubt they'll ever move back to Detroit.

My mom says decided we absolutely had to leave and she couldn't delay any longer the day we were sitting on the porch and heard a hail of gunfire a few houses away.
posted by lesli212 at 12:52 AM on August 26, 2011 [15 favorites]


It would cost more to bring most of those abandoned houses up to code than to just tear them down. And if squatters do move in, how do they get water hooked up? Electricity? Gas? What about appliances? With eight kids it seems like you'd at least need a refrigerator. I feel for this family, but there must be a better (and safer) solution than squatting or renting a moldy home. There are cheaper rentals in Detroit listed on Craigslist (I'm presuming the family doesn't have a home computer or Internet access, but they can check it out at the library.) It seems like there is more to their story than Mitch Albom reported.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:18 AM on August 26, 2011


Mitch Albom is a puddle of treacle with a keyboard.

Honestly, it's hard to even tell what he is saying.


The back story sounds might suspect to me. The house stinks of the worst case of mold, and the basement has wet shit coming out of the pipes and the stink is so bad he can't make it down the stairs. Hmmmm.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 1:18 AM on August 26, 2011


And if squatters do move in, how do they get water hooked up? Electricity? Gas?

The traditional thing to do is to call the water (or power) company and open an account.
posted by pompomtom at 2:29 AM on August 26, 2011


Mitch would have achieved more by talking the compensation for the article, if he recieved some, and a few more bucks and invested in a non-profit repair team for plumbing/ mold problems.

At least there would be two more folks helping with thier hands then gibbering at the keyboard and microphone. Albom has done some good things but urban planning is not one.

The traditional thing to do is to call the water (or power) company and open an account.

I like that, very ironic, one of those whydidntithinkofthat type of deals.
posted by clavdivs at 2:41 AM on August 26, 2011


pompomtom: that's assuming that all the wiring and plumbing in the house is working just fine. Houses require quite a bit of upkeep; being abandoned for a while doesn't mean the house just sits there exactly as it was.

So, let's say that we take Mitch's idea and give all the abandoned houses to people. Who's responsible if I move into a house which is structurally damaged? What if the pipes are all shot and I have no running water? What if the wiring's bad and turning the power back on means the place burns down? Assuming that I escape unscathed, do I go to the end of the list, or am I first in line for another one?

I've renovated an apartment while living there. It was really hard to do - I'm reasonably skilled, the apt just needed cosmetic work, we had no kids at the time - and it was still a draining process. And I'm the kind of person who enjoys projects like that. What about people with no background in that kind of work? Saddling them with a massive project, expecting them to live there while they fix the place up?

This idea might be motivated by compassion, but it would take an incredible amount of manpower and funds to make it work.
posted by dubold at 2:45 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


The back story sounds might suspect to me. The house stinks of the worst case of mold, and the basement has wet shit coming out of the pipes and the stink is so bad he can't make it down the stairs. Hmmmm.

uncanny hengeman, that's the reality of "affordable" housing in many urban areas. Heck, one house my family lived in when I was little, in a nice suburban neighborhood, was at the bottom of a hill in a swamp and had the sewer back up into the basement annually. And that's without any broken pipes that we would have been unable to pay to fix, in one of the places that we lived that was generally well-maintained. My father was working at the time, so we were able to move to another place when the landlord wanted to raise the rent a week or two after the second time the sewer backed up. (Though we never recovered our full Lego collection.) Other people are not so lucky - saving up enough for a security deposit and first month's rent while still paying current rent can be impossible if you're just squeaking by.

Lovecraft in Brooklyn, there's not so much tolerance of squatters outside of NYC, sadly (maybe San Francisco? I don't know the west coast history as well). NYC at least has a noble history of squatting and rent strikes and such. Laws vary by state and municipality and enforcement varies as well, pompomtom, but in most places that I know of, not only can the police come and enforce an eviction notice after various timelines have expired (which often takes on the order of 30 days, but can be as short as two weeks some places), but police can clear out abandoned buildings of squatters using municipal by-laws against "dangerous and unsightly" buildings, or against vagrancy, or against suspicion of drug or other criminal activity, etc. There's also the problem of "self-help evictions", where the landlord (extralegally, as it were) intimidates tenants into leaving sooner than they legally have to (the finer details of tenancy law is not something you see a lot on tv, awareness of legal rights in this area is not widespread), changes the locks, throws the tenants' stuff out on the sidewalk when they're not home, or brings in some friends (hired or otherwise) to throw out the tenants and their stuff while they are home.

dhartung, the market is not handling the problem of providing habitable housing in the low-income/affordable housing sub-market, which I will assume is not the end of the housing market that you are affiliated with. There are some pretty sub-par, dangerous slum dwellings out there that people pay money for because it's a step above being homeless. Likewise, there are some seriously over-crowded residences (one family/3-4 people per room in every room except the kitchen and bathroom). And there are also many people who are homeless for no other reason than not being able to afford a home. (Yeah, I know that due to the lack of adequate national health care in the US, a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population are mentally ill or have addiction problems, which can provide additional challenges to securing an apartment. That's certainly not the entire homeless population, though.)

One thing that could be helpful for people who have managed to at least secure a place to live that doesn't meet habitable standards, such as the family in the linked article, is rent withholding. Last I looked into this about two years ago, rent withholding is legal in all but four states (can't find the nice list that I originally saw, but here's a link to some information). The way it generally works is, if the residence needs major repairs that would cost more than a month's rent, the tenants (with proper notice) may withhold rent (usually a portion of the rent based on the portion of the residence that is made uninhabitable, and one has to check local and state by-laws for what constitutes uninhabitable) until the problem gets fixed. The caveat is that, technically, the tenant is supposed to have the rent set aside in case the landlord takes them to court for nonpayment of rent and the judge rules against them - in that case, the balance of rent is due immediately. More often I think, judges will forgive a portion of the rent (so, the tenant never has to pay it) for the period of time when a portion of the residence was uninhabitable. A danger in the current economy perhaps is that the landlord will never get around to fixing the original problem, and will in fact abandon the property and let it completely fall apart. Some municipalities have provisions to force landlords to make repairs, though due to lack of resources or lack of give-a-shit, these may or may not be well enforced.

As has been mentioned once or twice upthread, all of this is a lot easier with a group of people for backup - a group of tenants squatting together or going on a rent strike is much harder to evict than a single tenant or family. Community support - everyone else in the neighborhood coming over and blocking the police from evicting a tenant, for example - is hugely helpful as well.

Detroit may be particularly egregious, but my understanding is that in many towns and cities across the US, there are many houses that have been vacated more recently, since 2008, and may still be in quite decent shape for squatting. Getting the water or power turned on is not so easy pompomtom, sadly. Opening an account generally involves a credit check, and a one to several hundred dollar deposit for would-be utilities clients who fail the credit check (no credit history due to being too young or recent immigrants or never had enough money in the first place to borrow money to establish a credit history, past bankruptcy or defaulting on mortgage or previous bills, etc.).
posted by eviemath at 2:49 AM on August 26, 2011 [3 favorites]


squatting doesn't solve anything, it either leads to eviction or homeownership... and slums are ultimately created in problems with the market for homes i.e. homeownership. it's kind of odd that people who at least give a lip-service to free-market capitalism don't see slums as a necessary product of that free-market: with any change, you have to ask yourself, whether that change fundamentally alters the market which created the problem in the first place. for squatting to change that market you'd have to have a society with a very different character and squatting, as a political tactic, seems unlikely to lead to that society.

within the boundaries of liberal democracy, you can't solve the problems in the market for housing without a combination of effective enforcement of housing codes *and* significant subsidies: the continental european model. but, in the US, the idea of significant subsidizies for *those* people (the non-working poor?), not to mention problems of race, plus the idea of low-income home "ownership" and the lack of a landed gentry and aristocracy (with accompanying social customs) make the rigorous enforcement of housing codes impossible.

which is to say that the problem of a family living in a sub-habitable basement isn't really an economic problem but a political problem.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:02 AM on August 26, 2011


This idea might be motivated by compassion, but it would take an incredible amount of manpower and funds to make it work.

What's that you say? A massive keynsian make-work program that'd inject billions into the flagging consumer market while putting some unemployed construction workers back to work?

Nah, that wouldn't help the situation at all. That's just crazy talk.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 5:10 AM on August 26, 2011 [11 favorites]


What's that you say? A massive keynsian make-work program that'd inject billions into the flagging consumer market while putting some unemployed construction workers back to work?


a: That's not what's being suggested here.

b: even if it were, detroit doesn't have the money for this

c: It's not clear that the federal gov't. should cut them a check for this purpose
posted by dubold at 5:43 AM on August 26, 2011


That's not what's being suggested here.

There's nothing being suggested here other than lazy thinking by a newspaper columnist: wouldn't it be nice if everyone had a home. But, if you think about it seriously it ends up looking like a make-work program of some sort just on the rehabilitation front.

But, then, even if you want to live in an arts collective: how do you make money? Where are the jobs for the people to live in to support those houses and their utilities infrastructure?

So, you then have a jobs program...
posted by ennui.bz at 5:54 AM on August 26, 2011


A lot of the empty houses in Detroit have been stripped of wires and pipes - sold for scrap along with molding, appliances and big chunks of the buildings so squatting may well be far more like camping. Hard to renovate a building lacking electrical wires without significant skills, tools and money.
posted by leslies at 6:07 AM on August 26, 2011


I have some vague fantasy of going to Detroit, buying one of those buildings, and starting an artists warehouse collective. But I'd probably need guns and barbed wire to defend it. Which isn't wholly unappealing....
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn


Lots of artists have been doing this in Detroit for years now. Without the guns & barbed wire.
posted by Windigo at 6:21 AM on August 26, 2011 [4 favorites]


maybe San Francisco?

The story of 949 Market is telling. Here's a zine with the whole story.
posted by symbollocks at 8:03 AM on August 26, 2011


"Lots of artists have been doing this in Detroit for years now. Without the guns & barbed wire."

I have a friend who bought a warehouse the size of a city block in Hamtramck for around $60k. He had to put some money into rehabbing it for living, but he does pretty well with no barbed wire.

He does have guns, but that's because he likes them.
posted by klangklangston at 8:14 AM on August 26, 2011


Take Back the Land - Madison, a direct action group has moved evicted families into foreclosed homes a couple times. Maybe Mitch and Z! should chat.
posted by andythebean at 9:36 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


No.

Give them to Tea Partiers. Seriously. I seriously suggest that a bill be sponsored, to recognize the concerns and troubles of the underrepresented and unappreciated mainstream American population, and reward them for their hard work and loyalty with the opportunity to benefit, as others have done, from governmental largesse.

Eat that wedge, Repugs.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:57 PM on August 25 [1 favorite +] [!]


Detroit's had it hard enough these last few decades, and now you want to flood them with frothy teabaggers? That's just cruel.
posted by FatherDagon at 9:51 AM on August 26, 2011


In Brazil, if you occupy a house without paying rent for x years it is yours. (usupscao)
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:25 AM on August 26, 2011 [1 favorite]


yoyo_nyc, in the US that's called adverse possession. The details vary by state, generally.

eviemath, low-income is the area I'm familiar with, for better or worse. I advocate enforcement of building codes to prevent slumlords from creating blighted, demolition-in-place ghettoes that people take because they have no other options. I would advocate for non-profit and co-operative approaches to housing, as an alternative to failed public housing agencies. Slumlords are essentially the illegal aliens of the housing market, creating enough supply to bring wages/rents down. But if it reaches a point where the achievable rent is less than the basic maintenance costs of the property, nobody is well served.
posted by dhartung at 6:15 PM on August 26, 2011


Or maybe just maybe Detroit could create some renters' bill of rights and enforce code violations made by landlords. If the apartment has mold the renters should be able to put the rent is escrow until either the landlord makes repairs or the courts allow the renters to use rent money to make the repairs.
posted by Gungho at 6:22 AM on August 27, 2011


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