How A Law Meant To Protect Property Owners In Michigan Is Holding Detroit Back

Vacant land on Moran St. in Detroit, as seen on Google Street View.

Detroit has a lot of vacant land. That much, you’ve probably heard by now. On Sunday, the Detroit Free Press took a look at efforts to put that land to use, and along the way, the paper rounded up some eye-popping statistics you might not have heard:

  • There are more than 100,000 vacant residential lots in the city of Detroit.
  • If you include commercial property, nearly a third of the city is vacant.
  • If you put all of the vacant land together, the entire city of Paris could fit inside.
  • The vacant land could also fit 25,000 football fields.
  • Only 40% of the real estate parcels in the entire city have owners who pay their property taxes on time.
  • Over the past 30 years in Detroit, 10 residential structures were demolished for every one that was built.

There are plenty of people who want to put this vacant land to use. But that’s proving more complicated than it sounds, thanks especially to a law passed by Michigan voters in 2006.

The Freep points out that Detroit isn’t the only city with a vacancy problem. Both Cleveland and Chicago lost population in the last census. Over at our partner station, WBEZ, Lee Bey has blogged about the “vast emptiness” on the South Side of Chicago. Here at Changing Gears, we ran a series on the many empty spaces in the Midwest.

But the scale of the problem is huge in Detroit. We’re talking about 40 square miles of empty land.

The Freep reports that people have proposed using that land for new recreation areas, solar arrays or urban gardening. There’s also a proposal for a large-scale commercial farm in Detroit. And our own Kate Davidson has reported on “blotting,” a trend where residents are trying to take care of the vacant properties next door. That trend got a big boost earlier this year, when Detroit mayor Dave Bing announced that residents could now own that vacant lot next door for just $200.

But experts who spoke to the Freep say, to really make a dent in Detroit’s vacancy, more large-scale projects need to happen. Right now, state laws are getting in the way.

Six years ago, voters in Michigan approved Proposition 4, a law that limits what the government can do with private land. The proposal was created in response to the Supreme Court Case Kelo v. City of New London. In that case, the city of New London, Conn. condemned a swath of privately-owned land so that it could be redeveloped, creating new jobs along the way. The Supreme Court decided it was a valid use of the city’s powers under eminent domain.

After that decision, many people across the country worried that governments would start seizing private property, and handing it over to big developers, all under the guise of “economic development.” Twelve states passed new laws to prevent that from happening. Michigan was one of them.

Prop 4 made it illegal for governments to take private property and transfer it to another private entity. It also raised the bar for taking “blighted” property.

From the Freep:

Under the new law, a city must prove by clear and convincing evidence that every property within a targeted district is blighted. It’s not enough to show that it’s true for 90% of the properties.

So, for the 100,000 pieces of vacant land in Detroit, the cash-strapped city would have to assemble 100,000 case files to demonstrate that the land is truly blighted.

About half of Detroit’s vacant land is already under the control of either the city or the county. But that still leaves about 50,000 lots left to claim.

The Free Press quotes Wayne State University law professor John Mogk:

“So long as we’re facing the limitations that we are, I don’t think land can be assembled in Detroit for major redevelopment,” Mogk said. “At this point, I don’t think it’s possible.”

For now, it seems, Detroiters will have to settle for the piecemeal approach, taking back what land they can, when they can. Last week, the Detroit News reported the commercial farming proposal, Hantz Farms, could be the first to assemble more than a few lots. The paper says Hantz Farms is expected to buy 200 lots from the city within the next few weeks.

It’s better than nothing.

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