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.

images-5At 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.

imagesAnother factor working against squatting is the legitimate need to protect property rights. Embrace of the squatter concept risks depriving absentee owners of heir property without just compensation.

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.

debrisIf squatting is the optimum plan to save, indeed, restore Detroit neighborhoods; perhaps the death knell for a city that once led the nation in homeownership has already been sounded.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Band-Aid Politics is just another way of covering up many “mistakes” made by our City Officials. This article is very captivating and valid when you look through a window and see your neighborhood go from bad to worst. Today , the citizens of Detroit have every right to fight and complain for what they want their neighborhoods to look like. It seems to me that Politics have become a big monopoly game of who has the first move, and what board piece are you playing today. Lip service is always a given until it happens to you. I wonder who really cares about the City of Detroit and the people in it. The taxpayers are very diligently doing the right thing must stand up and shout for what is right. The burning question that haunts me today is where was the voices of the City Officials when the public cried out asking for help to keep their homes/properties. What was the guidelines, and could these guideline be adjusted according to the economic conditions of 2008 financial crisis?

    The squatters took their place and was very proud of calling a dilapidated house their home; some repaired and improved the home, and some caused more mayhem within the community. However, what did the City do to rectify this problem? Today, I’ve never seen communities more confused about their rights concerning their own property. My parents understood their rights and fought hard and was heard by the City Officials; there was blocks clubs, community centers, police stations and churches that were involved and proud that they played a major role(s) within the community. Now everything is gone, closed, or too far for many to travel to.

    The facts and figures are in and the cost is too high with little man power to get the job done. It’s amazing how you watch the news and everyone is blaming other officials on not doing their due diligence. Therefore, the Band-Aid Politics is here to stay for a while; look at Downtown Detroit; growth and development. The main roads to downtown is growth and development, but turn right or left into the neighborhoods and you will see the biggest Band-Aid waiting for you without any ointment to cure the problem.

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