Arson is one of the Detroit’s most menacing and unprosecuted crimes. There’s evidence that it accelerates abandonment by producing shells of buildings that blight the city at rates many times faster than the city can tear them down. But are these flames beyond the ability of law enforcement to contain?
Detroit is a fertile field for intentional fires or fires of suspicious origin that result in the willful damage or destruction of property. Beginning in the 1980s, the city sealed its dubious reputation as the “arson capital” when the skyline of the city was routinely lit up on Devil’s Night. It preceded a long tradition of setting trash cans on fire leading up to Halloween.
Mischief-makers, however, were replaced by those who set buildings on fire for profit, malice or out of compulsion. The unprecedented number of city workers, police and fire personnel and citizens required to prevent Detroit from turning into an inferno in the days leading up to Halloween are equal to the entire Michigan National Guard contingent.
No longer a Devil’s Night phenomenon, arson is now a year-round activity. FBI uniform crime reports reveal arson incidents in the city were 1,082 for 2010, up from 636 in 2009. Much of it occurs in older sections of the city where property values are flat or in steep decline. High taxes prevent some homeowners from maintaining their properties, which may also be unsuitable for rental. They can get far more from an insurance settlement than by offering their properties for sale. So destroying them clears the mortgage and protects their credit standing.
There too are profit schemes in which fraudulent fire repair companies collect insurance claims in exchange for bogus or shoddy repairs. Pyromaniacs add to the devastation.
By no stretch of the imagination is it endemic to Detroit. According to the Insurance Institute of Michigan, there were 11,326 arson and suspicious fires across Michigan last year. Wayne County – Detroit included – recorded the largest percentage.
By some estimates, arson may account for more than two-thirds of about $663 million in fire damage claims filed in Michigan last year. In Wayne County alone, insurance companies paid in excess of $237 million for damage caused by arsons or suspicious blazes, the highest in the state. Oakland County, at $19.2 million, was the fourth highest among Michigan counties.
Fraud fires carry a cost ultimately shared by everyone in Michigan through higher costs for insurance premiums. Every time an insurer pays an unwarranted claim, fire insurance rates for all the other parties insured with that company must be raised to cover the losses. Detroit, of course, has some of the highest insurance costs found anywhere.
For all the above reasons, arson competes with high taxes and street crime as major contributors to blighted neighborhoods, erosion of the tax base and population flight. The remaining residents struggle to recover and cope with arson-related property damage that guts sections of the city and permanently destroys businesses and jobs.
Despite it ravaging effect on neighborhoods and quality of life, city officials have not seen fit to appropriate enough funds in any one year to sufficiently raze burned or abandoned structures, or beef up arson investigations. The fact that only a small percentage of suspicious or fraud fires get investigated suggests that arson is a low priority. Because government won’t take the necessary steps toward prevention, detection or apprehension of fire starters, they operate with relative impunity.
Detroit’s arson epidemic is another searing reminder of the deterioration in general standards of behavior. Tearing down abandoned buildings is a short-term solution. It will take an all out war of public condemnation against lawbreakers to prevent the city from being overcome by the combustion.