Several Detroit communities are advocating for –and some have embarked on — a “recruit-a-squatter” campaign to slow down the rate of arson, blight and dangerous and demolished buildings.
At first glance, catering to squatters may appear to be an innovative way of saving homes from the wrecking ball while meeting the needs of the housing poor. But while giving the appearance of being reasonable, this populist movement has more to do with Band-Aid politics than with making a serious dent in the escalating rate of abandoned houses.
Some of his critics have accused Mayor Mike Duggan of ignoring neighborhoods. The mayor is also deflecting blame for failing to efficiently, effectively and expeditiously tear down thousands of abandoned and dilapidated buildings. To date, there’s no evidence city officials have come out publicly in support of this “neo-urban homesteading” idea — with good reason.
The City Council’s 1980’s Nuisance Abatement Ordinance – better known as the “squatters law,” was not only discredited, but also kicked to the curb years ago. A similar extension program, “Repair and Own,” allowed squatters to take title to a city-owned house after meeting specified requirements received former Mayor Coleman Young’s blessings. It too hit legal snags. Today, squatting is actually illegal.
There’s no dispute that neighoods are worse today than at anytime in the last half-century. Housing stock is disintegrating faster than the city can cope with it. Why? Because the incentives to abandon housing in Detroit remain much stronger than the incentives to own, occupy and improve housing.
Crime and poor city services aside, the current property tax system discourages home repairs. Improvements can trigger sharply higher tax assessments in a city where the property tax rate is among the highest in the nation. Notably, the rate of tax collections to taxes levied has been on a precipitous decline for at least four decades. Thus, the consequences of abandonment are an over-tax overburden and a quality of life that middle-class residents have found unacceptable. Most have moved on.
There’s also an issue of assigning liability for personal injury. Since the “homesteaders” are neither renters nor owners, insurance companies may not be willing to write liability insurance policies to cover them. So it seems illogical that threatening the property rights of some and handing over homestead rights to others will solve the causes of blight.
The city won’t save on money it spends demolishing vandalized and uninhabitable dilapidated structures if homesteaders, many of whom are poor, cannot afford the substantial cost of home improvements or bringing housing up to code standards. And city coffers won’t be enriched if indigent tenants cannot afford to pay taxes.
Needed is a mechanism that goes to the source of the crisis of decaying neighborhoods. It starts with finding ways to deal with underlying chronic housing problems, chiefly by making the city a more desirable place to live, work and invest.
Yet the strategies of city government, or lack thereof, continue to collide with the reason why households continue to flee. Detroit city officials, for example, are rhetorically rich in giving lip service to slashing the heavy tax burden that drives people, businesses and capital away from the city, which is key to restoring its economic vitality. They are also action deficient.