By Max Nussenbaum
It seems like you can't go anywhere in Detroit without hearing about blight removal.
Emergency manager Kevyn Orr has set aside $560 million for the demolition and mitigation of blighted properties in his plan of adjustment, and the city's Blight Removal Task Force has just completed a massive survey of every single blighted property within the city limits. For the first time in decades, the vision of a blight-free Detroit seems well within our grasp.
The blight removal projects currently under way represent a significant advance for the city, and the leaders of the effort should be applauded for the astonishing progress they've made so far. Still, there's a sadness to watching house after house get torn down. We've become so used to the term "blight" that we often forget that what surrounds us wasn't always blight: each neglected house has a story behind it, a small piece of Detroit's history contained within its now-vacant walls. In a city that's seen so much of its once-great beauty destroyed, it seems counterintuitive that the path to a better future should involve even more destruction.
A crucial piece is missing from the conversation about blight removal: the fact that there are two ways to do it. Yes, you can remove blight by knocking down an abandoned house and carting the pieces away — and there's no question that this kind of blight removal will be an essential part of Detroit's restoration. But you can also take that same abandoned house and restore it, destroying the blight while leaving the property itself intact.
We believe Detroit needs a whole lot more of the second kind of blight removal. We're a group of four recent transplants to the city in our early twenties, working to remove blight not by tearing it down, but by building it back up. And we're calling our project Rebirth Realty.
The four of us arrived in Detroit almost two years ago as part ofVenture for America, a fellowship program that connects recent graduates with startups in up-and-coming cities around the country. We bought our first property, 760 Virginia Park St., at the tax foreclosure auction last year, and have been working since then to restore it to its former glory. Our house was, and still is, beautiful, but it needs a lot of love. Over the past few months, we've completed all of the necessary demolition and cleanup, and begun to join forces with local rehab specialists to install all-new heating, electrical, and plumbing. This fall, we'll move in ourselves and rent the remaining rooms to new tenants, bringing the house's decade-long streak of abandonment to an end.
Our aim is to turn this house — and, in the future, others like it — into a communal living and working space for generations of Venture for America Fellows to come. Through the Rebirth Realty house, Fellows will be able to become a part of a community of diverse Detroiters, escaping the bubble of Downtown that new arrivals — especially those involved in the startup scene — are often caught in.
Additionally, once the house is complete, we'll use the knowledge we've acquired along the way to help other young people who are interested in pursuing similar projects. On our website,RebirthRealty.com, we'll post a collection of tips and tricks for aspiringhome restorers, from navigating the tax foreclosure auction and dealing with city government to locating skilled contractors and learning how to do construction work yourself.
Of course, even if hundreds or even thousands of Detroiters follow our path, a blight removal strategy that requires months of dedicated labor on each property can't be effectively scaled up for the entire city. It's an unfortunate truth that wide-scale demolition will be an important component of Detroit's blight removal plan. Still, in all the talk about demolition, it's essential that restoration and rebuilding not be left out. Blighted or not, each house is a voice in the cacophony that is Detroit's story. It would be a shame if they all became nothing more than leveled ground.
Max Nussenbaum is part of the inaugural class ofhttp://ventureforamerica.org/, a fellowship program that mobilizes recent graduates at entrepreneurs. He currently doesbusiness development, web design, and marketing forhttp://areyouahuman.com/, a Detroit ad tech startup.