Burning Down Detroit

by Benjamin Domenech on 10:38 am March 9, 2009

As President Barack Obama’s auto industry task force heads to Detroit today to assess the feasibility of rescuing the dying automakers, there’s a strategy that the White House ought to consider as a solution, albeit an extreme one, for what ails the city where the sirens never sleep.

At this point, the best help to Michigan’s economic woes might come from razing much of the Motor City.

It’s an audacious statement, yes. It may sound like life imitating The Onion. This is beyond broken windows theories — we’re talking about broken houses, buildings, skyscrapers; an entire broken community, economy and polity.

In December 2008, the median price for a home sold in Detroit was $7,500. You read that right. There are no zeroes missing. That’s seven thousand five hundred dollars:

Among the many dispiriting numbers that bleakly depict the decrepitude of this onetime industrial behemoth, the steep slide of housing values helps define the daunting challenge to anyone who wants to lead this shrinking, poverty-pocked city of about 800,000 people …

On a positive note, Detroit’s homicide rate dropped 14 percent last year. That prompted mayoral candidate Stanley Christmas to tell the Detroit News recently, “I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but there just isn’t anyone left to kill” …

John Mogk, a professor at Wayne State University Law School noted that “a thousand people are leaving the city every month and the city does not have the financial resources and the economic base to solve its own problems.”

The full truth is actually worse than that number indicates, because stepping back to view the whole picture reveals that Detroit has no realistic hope of changing its destiny. They have no hope in their council leadership, which seems to alternate between blame games and conspiracy theories. They have little hope from President Obama, whose cap-and-trade plan — regardless of what you think of its necessity — contains the death knell for Michigan’s primary industries. They’re too far gone to be the next green enterprise zone after Wilmington, Ohio. They’re past the point of keeping up appearances just for the sake of survival.

While the vast majority of the problems plaguing the automakers (most of which are based outside the city), are of an entirely different variety than the ones destroying Detroit from within, the simple fact is that even with another bailout of the auto industry, no good worker or talented executive in their right mind will want to live or work in or near Detroit in the near future absent a fundamental change for the city and its surrounding area.

Beyond the shock of the $7,500 figure, it’s clear that most of the homes in Detroit collapse in value the instant they’re built: the raw materials are worth more than the houses themselves. And with the credit crisis inspiring more and more communities of empty, bank-owned homes, these houses are not likely to gain value back anytime soon.

This isn’t about spending less — President Obama is already inclined toward throwing more taxpayer funds at the problem. This is about how that taxpayer money ought to be spent: attempting to reinvigorate Detroit communities that are too far gone to be saved, or by buying up essentially valueless lots, knocking down the empty homes and buildings that the terribly run city has never gotten around to destroying, selling their materials for firewood value if at all, and starting from scratch.

Razing these former houses and condemned businesses — now transformed into tinderboxes for arson, crime, and urban decay — until you achieve critical mass would end the problem of oversupply and the roughly one-third overvaluation of homes. Demolition crews would provide jobs at least for the short term.

If we don’t do it ourselves, the societal ramifications for these communities could well effect a far more terrible result, as do-it-yourself arsonists have been doing in Detroit for years. Taxpayer funds for Detroit is just a band-aid on cancer: it won’t change the endpoint for the city, and buy delaying the fundamental change that needs to occur, it will only make things worse in the long run.

In the end, the White House should take guidance from history and Matt LaBash:

Detroit has always been a city of fire. Nearly all of it was destroyed by fire in 1805, more of it burned in the Detroit Race Riot of 1863, and over 2,000 buildings were consumed in the Twelfth Street Riot of 1967. Even its flag contains fire; its Latin motto translates, “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”

This city can come back, and so can the American auto industry that supports it. But the hard choice has to be made. It’s time to bombard the Motor City with urban policy chemo.

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