Detroit City Council rejects $250M bond to 'wipe out blight'

November 19, 2019, 12:28 PM by  Violet Ikonomova

Duggan unveils blight bond proposal in September.

Detroit City Council on Tuesday rejected a $250 million bond proposal by Mayor Mike Duggan that would have levied a new tax on residents to demolish the city's remaining blighted and abandoned houses by 2025.

Councilmembers voted the proposal down 6-3 after weeks of expressing concern over the abuse, mismanagement and public health problems that have to date plagued the six-year-old program.

Their approval was needed for the proposal to advance to the March presidential primary ballot, where voters would have had final say.

"I don't think anyone up here doesn't want to see blighted houses get demolished," Council President Brenda Jones told a packed auditorium during a special session on the eve of the vote. "But the concern is the way the records are kept, whether or not citizens will have to pay taxes at the end of the day, whether or not everything will be done the way it should be done."

City officials argued continued demolitions are crucial to improving Detroit neighborhoods and spurring investment.

The bond was to help take down an additional 19,000 houses over the next six years, as federal funding for the program dries up. Nearly 20,000 residential structures have been removed with $340 million in federal and city funds since Duggan took office in 2014.

Under the proposal, the average homeowner would have paid up to an estimated $57 a year for the next 30.

Jones was joined in voting no by councilmembers Mary Sheffield, Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, James Tate, Roy McCalister and Andre Spivey. Councilmembers Gabe Leland, Janee Ayers and Scott Benson voted yes.

The vote caps a month of contentious hearings marked by new revelations of problems with the program and emotional appeals from residents.

Councilmembers opposed to infusing the program with additional public dollars cited a wide range of concerns, including an auditor general's report that earlier this month found agencies administering demolitions failed to follow protocols and provide proper oversight. They also noted that a federal criminal probe into the program that has seen two contractors — one of whom is an ex-city employee — go down for bribery is not complete.

Issues with the beleaguered program continued to emerge Tuesday morning, when Detroit's ombudsmen released a report that found a city firefighter who started a wrecking company was permitted to complete several demolitions, in an apparent violation of the charter.

At the Monday night session, councilmembers heard from dozens of residents — some in tears — on both sides of the issue. Those in favor argued that abandoned houses are magnets for crime and that their presence sends the wrong message about the city.

Rev. Larry L. Simmons, who works with kids in Brightmoor, said that of the more than 100 he's encountered, "only one ... has said they want to live in Detroit and when I ask them why, they say 'it’s too ugly.'

“I get that there are problems, I get that you got issues with the administration … but I’m asking you to vote yes and put this on the ballot and let the citizens make a decision," he told the council. "We are to be trusted.”

But those against the plan outnumbered proponents by a roughly 2-1 margin, with many arguing taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for the demolition of houses left blighted by speculators and a tax foreclosure crisis fueled at least partly by government failure. Others said the city could better spend $250 million.

“It’s as if we are measuring progress in this city for some reason by how much of it we are tearing down instead of how many people we’re keeping in houses," said resident Joe Maurer. "I think we should ask a different question: How can we keep people here, how can we stop the foreclosures?

“It’s as if we have a whole bunch of sick people and instead of getting doctors and nurses and medicines, the administration wants to build funeral homes.”

In the face of opposition, Duggan ran a full-court press on the issue. His administration's tactics included using city resources to encourage residents to lobby councilmembers. Yesterday, councilmembers opposed to the plan said their offices were inundated with "telemarketer" calls urging them to vote yes.

After the vote, Duggan said he would continue to work with council to get something passed. He  can come back to the body with another demolition bond proposal at any point.

Duggan has said the demolition plan would expedite the timeline for eliminating blight, requiring 6 years as opposed to the 13 it would take should demolitions conitinue at a slower pace. The city currently has $50 million budgeted annually for continued demolitions through its bankruptcy plan of adjustment and puts surplus dollars toward demolition each year.

His chief financial officer previously said the administration was targetting the March ballot to avoid a slowdown in demolitions and potentially higher interest rates in the bond market down the line.

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