02 May 2012

Warren City Officials Take a Crack at Foreclosure Blight

Story first appeared in The Detroit News.

Like other cities near Detroit, home to tens of thousands of vacant properties, Warren has an influx of blight, a result of a slogging economy and the foreclosure crisis.

So every year since 2008, the city has hired a team of inspectors to walk block-by-block in some of its most depressed areas to hold property owners accountable for decay, as part of the Mayor arsenal against blight.

Every two weeks between mid-April and October about a half-dozen workers take detailed notes of the conditions of properties throughout the city: grass length, the condition of gutters, excessive trash and safety hazards. When an inspector finds a property that violates a city code, the owner is given a five-day written warning to fix the problem.

The city has spent nearly $500,000, made 68,000 contacts with property owners, issued 37,000 warnings and written nearly 600 citations for non-compliance.

Though the city has lost millions in property tax revenues, the program, which costs $115,200 a year to employ temporary workers, is touted by officials as a self-sustaining, aggressive approach to a growing problem. Detroit Real Estate Defense Lawyers could not be reached for comment.

Last year, the blight sweep program netted some $250,000 in revenue, generated mostly from billing property owners for mowing lawns, trimming trees and other property upkeep. But forcing landlords to take care of their properties only scratches the surface of a more complex problem.

Getting people to mow their lawns and getting land owners to secure their properties and to keep them up is a bandage for this really big structural problem.

Because of a steady stream of foreclosures, Warren and other suburbs throughout Metro Detroit have had to contend with dwindling property tax revenue and a budget crunch. Warren's foreclosures have slowed since last year, but the number of bank-owned properties remains relatively steady. A Detroit News analysis of data provided by RealtyTrac shows that since 2008, more than 6,000 of the city's 57,938 housing units have been foreclosed. In Sterling Heights, which like Warren has many aging residents, and where about 7 percent of its 52,190 housing units were foreclosed upon since 2008 but only 5.2 of its housing units vacant, officials last year launched the Neighborhood Services Division, made up of four officers who respond to resident complaints. Because of budget constraints though, the division's staff is expected to be reduced to three when the city's new budget is approved.

Once a year, the division's Sterling Heights Initiative for Neighborhood Excellence program, or SHINE, organizes a cleanup day in which volunteers canvass the city, ridding the streets of debris and helping residents do yard work.

Several municipalities, including Warren, Hamtramck, Royal Oak and Dearborn, require that owners of rental and vacant properties register with the city and be able to pass inspections.

Aside from responding to blighted properties, officials in Hamtramck hold occasional volunteer cleanup efforts, relying on members of the community to step forward to help.

By contrast, the city of Royal Oak, where 1,656 homes were foreclosed upon in the past four years and with 7.1 percent of its 30,207 housing units vacant, does not have a dedicated blight staff either, though officials say the Oakland suburb has not reached levels of decay of other Metro Detroit communities.

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