Detroit Has Tons Of Vacant Land. But Forty Square Miles?


Vacancy is easy to see, hard to quantify

DETROIT – Forty square miles.  That’s how much of Detroit lies vacant, nearly a third of the city.  You could fit Miami or San Francisco inside all that emptiness.  At least, that’s what we’ve heard for years.  The thing is, it might not be true.

This is a story about a number – an estimate, really – and how it became a fact illustrating Detroit’s decline. I’ve read about 40 square miles in the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and The Washington Times. I’ve heard it on Fox and I’ve said it on the radio. That’s why Margaret Dewar called me out.

“Wait, this can’t be true.”

Dewar is a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. She thinks there’s tons of vacant land in Detroit. Just not 40 square miles, dramatic as it sounds.

“It’s too good a number to let go of,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful number, it’s so shocking.” Continue reading “Detroit Has Tons Of Vacant Land. But Forty Square Miles?”

Measuring The Costs And Benefits Of Retraining


Todd Debenedet is starting over. He's retraining in Jackson, Mich.

Measuring the success of retraining programs used to be straightforward. You just looked at how many people got better paying jobs. Now the emphasis is shifting from how job seekers benefit to how taxpayers benefit too. That’s because some federal funds for workforce development are shrinking, and local agencies have to do more to make their case.

In the Midwest, we hear a lot about retraining. A lot of the money for retraining and other job services comes from the federal government, through the states, to local programs like this one in Jackson, Michigan.

Sparks fly as Ron Waldon grinds the surface off a steel block. Soon he’ll learn to be a CNC operator– someone who can program computerized milling machines. It’s a hot skill for a guy who’s had a rough few years. Continue reading “Measuring The Costs And Benefits Of Retraining”

Small Churches: Detroit’s Got ‘Em, Now Tell Us Where They Are

If you live in Michigan, you might be mulling over the big economic news from Detroit. Namely that not-yet-consensual consent agreement that could alter city governance for years to come.

Kindof a big deal. But economic stories come in small packages too. Like this:

In Good Faith Missionary Baptist Church
In Good Faith Missionary Baptist Church -- photo by Kevin Bauman

Kevin Bauman is the photographer behind this picture project on Detroit’s small churches. We’ve been curious about small churches here at Changing Gears, and what happens to their buildings when services stop.

(No offense to the big guys; you deserve your own story, Archdiocese of Detroit.)

But right now we want to learn about the little pop-up and store front churches in your neighborhoods. Are they still active? Or have they fallen into disrepair … and off the tax rolls? What’s the story behind the church on your block?


Blotting Update: Detroit Wants To Sell You This Lot

Sharon McClinton cares for the vacant land around her house. Detroit is trying to make it easier for residents like her to buy that land, too.

Apparently, the phone has been ringing off the hook over at Detroit’s planning department.  It’s all because of a few lines uttered by Mayor Dave Bing in his State of the City address last week. (You’ll find them about 30 minutes in.)

“This week we sent out over 500 letters to property owners in Hubbard Farms, Springwells Village and Southwest Detroit,” he announced, “telling them if they own a home adjacent to a vacant city-owned lot, they can purchase this lot for a mere $200.”

“No coming downtown,” the mayor said.  “No added bureaucracy. The city will mail back the deed.”

The initiative is a response to the overwhelming problem of abandoned property in Detroit.  It’s a problem we explored in our stories about Detroit “blotters” — which you can see here and here.

Blotting describes what happens when homeowners annex the vacant lot, or lots, next door. They create expanded properties, between the size of a lot and a city block.  Sometimes, residents can purchase these side lots.  Often, they’re constrained by bureaucracy or money, so they may just throw up a fence to ward off the dangers of abandonment. Continue reading “Blotting Update: Detroit Wants To Sell You This Lot”

Student Debt: When Fixing Cars Breaks The Bank


Victor Gregory teaches high schoolers about cars. He worries when they take on debt after graduation.

Americans owe close to a trillion dollars in student loan debt.  Changing Gears has been reporting on that debt, a lot of which comes from attending private, for-profit schools.  They’re the fastest growing part of higher education, popular for non-degree technical training.  Call them career colleges, technical schools or trade schools … just don’t call them cheap.

Fact: For-profit schools cost more than community colleges.  Fact: For-profit students borrow more, then default more than students from public colleges.  Fact:  All this explains why I ended up at the strip club in Detroit.

So I’m at Cobra’s the Grind, eyes-avoiding-buttocks, walking up dimly lit stairs to meet the manager. Steve is a big guy; he started here as a bouncer. He lays his gun down next to us as we talk.  He had different life plans after graduating high school in 2006. Continue reading “Student Debt: When Fixing Cars Breaks The Bank”

Student Debt: The Cost Of Learning A Trade

Kate Davidson
For $2, this little guy gets a “college boy” cut from barber student Tom Amundson


America’s student loan debt is now bigger than its credit card debt. It’s approaching a trillion dollars. Student loan default rates are rising too. While many families struggle to afford traditional colleges, a lot of student debt comes from attending private, for-profit schools that focus on vocational training. These students default on their loans twice as often as students from public colleges. Today we’re looking at one small school battling big defaults.

Continue reading “Student Debt: The Cost Of Learning A Trade”

Cliffs Natural Resources Scraps Plans for UP Nugget Plant

Cliff's Empire Mine in Michigan's Upper Peninsula

If you’ve been following our coverage of iron mining in the region, this might interest you.  Cliffs Natural Resources, North America’s biggest iron ore supplier, is scrapping plans to build an iron nugget plant in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A nugget is just a little clump of very pure iron.  Big deal?  Well, here’s why the new nugget technology matters … and why Cliffs spent years studying it in cooperation with Kobe Steel of Japan.

Remember, the iron-rich regions of Michigan and Minnesota:

1) provided the iron ore

2) that made the steel

3) that helped the industrial Midwest become the industrial Midwest.

However, miners extracted so much high-grade ore, for so long, that mostly low-grade ore remains today.  Companies like Cliffs spend a lot of time and money processing that ore — essentially upgrading it into a product that contains more iron.  That product, called a pellet, is what they ship to steelmakers.

Nuggets have a far higher iron content than the pellets typically produced in the region.  They look like Junior Mints, but they’re almost 100% iron.  Very pure.  Which could make them very valuable to the next generation of steelmakers.

Check out our recent piece on a groundbreaking nugget plant in Minnesota.  Mesabi Nugget hasn’t reached full capacity yet, but it has produced more than 200,000 tons of iron nuggets.

As for Cliffs Natural Resources, the company decided a nugget plant in Michigan would not be commercially viable.  However, spokesman Dale Hemmila says that won’t prevent Cliffs from investing $60 million to extend the life of its Empire Mine to 2015.

The Empire and Tilden open pit mines are essential to the economy of the UP.  We reported earlier on one “company town” that relies on the economic oxygen of the mines.  If you’ve never been to Ishpeming, now’s your chance.

Buy Here-Pay Here: Get a Ride, Don’t Be Taken for One

Matt Ghazal runs a Buy Here-Pay Here business in West Michigan. He's trying to change the sector's reputation.

In the Midwest, it’s hard to get around without a car.  These days, people are holding onto them longer.  The average vehicle is almost 11 years old and used cars prices are on the rise.  All this adds to the pressure on the bottom rung of consumers: people with bad credit.  For many, the only way to finance a car is at a Buy Here-Pay Here lot.  Here, dealers loan to deep subprime customers at interest rates up to 25%.[display_podcast] Continue reading “Buy Here-Pay Here: Get a Ride, Don’t Be Taken for One”

The State of the State in Laingsburg, Michigan

Janae Jodway owns Body Works Medical Massage in Laingsburg

LAINGSBURG, Mich. – Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder gives his second State of the State address tonight.  He’s already signed more than 300 public acts.  That’s a new law for almost every day in office.

Over the next few weeks, Changing Gears is looking at how changes in state government are impacting lives and wallets across the region. Here in Michigan, people are riveted by some of Snyder’s big ticket changes, like giving emergency managers the power to strip control from elected officials in failing cities and school districts.

But this story is different.  It’s about one Mid-Michigan town and all the small, drowned-out changes that deeply affect people’s lives.  People like Janae Jodway.[display_podcast] Continue reading “The State of the State in Laingsburg, Michigan”

Can Technology Breathe New Life into the Midwest’s Old Iron?

Plant manager Jeff Hansen says Mesabi Nugget is a pioneer

The industrial Midwest might not be the industrial Midwest if it weren’t for the iron-rich regions of northern Minnesota and Michigan. These iron ranges have long supplied domestic steelmakers, depleting the highest quality ore along the way. Now, a plant in Minnesota is testing a process to dramatically upgrade the low-grade ore that remains.[display_podcast] Continue reading “Can Technology Breathe New Life into the Midwest’s Old Iron?”