It’s been 30 years since John George turned around his first crack house.
While living in the Old Redford neighborhood of Detroit — which, like almost every major city in the 1980s, was decaying in large part due to the crack epidemic — he decided one day he was going to give a blighted home a facelift. George repainted the house, repaired the broken windows and tended to the lawn.
From there, fixing up derelict houses became a weekly thing.
“I’m half Lebanese, half Italian and 100 percent Detroit stubborn. Once we get something in our heart and in our head, it’s almost autopilot,” George tells NationSwell, adding that he never considered simply moving away. “I didn’t think leaving the city was the proper thing to do.”
At first George’s goal was to stop property values in his neighborhood from diminishing any further. But as he started fixing up the houses that surrounded his own, he discovered his efforts could have a much larger impact in helping his hometown recover. It’s an idea that has caught on in other cities battling blight: Clean up the streets and empty lots, and you have a recipe for lowering crime and encouraging community engagement and business development.
In Detroit, the problem was particularly pronounced. The mortgage crisis of the 1990s, when property ownership began to dramatically decline, was soon followed by the 2008 housing crisis. The city declared bankruptcy, resulting in illegal trash dumping in the streets and plenty of burnt-out and abandoned homes.
“Things started to deteriorate. Problems started to escalate. We had serious problems with our mayors, and the biggest question people had was how did Detroit get to where it is,” says George, who founded the nonprofit Detroit Blight Busters in 1988. “There’s a lot of blame to go around. But blaming people and things weren’t going to fix anything. So instead of blaming, I thought we should do something.”
Every Saturday, George and his Blight Busters cofounder would meet and then go fix something up. A park. A home. A street corner. No project was too small.
“We weren’t naive enough to think we would stop crime or anything, but we wanted to at least minimize the decrease of property values,” he says. It was an antidote to the city’s response, which was to simply board up the houses or demolish them completely. “We didn’t want to be part of the problem of tearing down houses, but be part of the solution to make them nice.”
With thousands of blighted buildings in the Motor City still standing, George and his crew of volunteers, who so far have more than 1,500 renovations under their belts, remain committed to revitalizing as many of them as they can.
A SCALABLE MODEL CATCHES ON
Other cities have taken up similar initiatives. Durham, North Carolina, was one of the first to ban plywood on abandoned homes, instead covering them up with clear polycarbonate. Officials there claim that the change has helped sell the vacant buildings.
In Philadelphia, workers are dispatched to clean up vacant lots and property owners who don’t take care of their land are fined. The city also works with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society through the Philadelphia LandCare program, which has “cleaned and greened” thousands of abandoned properties since 1999.
The result has been a noticeable decrease in crime and an upswing in economic mobility for the neighborhoods.
“Just by the changing the neighborhoods, people’s attitudes toward their community has changed,” says Thomas Conway, deputy managing director of the city’s Community Life Improvements Programs. “Its given them hope.”
Revitalization of the lots include clearing debris, grading the land, planting trees and erecting post-and-rail fencing, essentially transforming the land into de facto parks. In 2010, the city passed an ordinance that mandates private owners of abandoned buildings to install working doors and windows, or face steep fines.
“We’ve cleaned and gleamed about 8,000 properties and 23,000 vacant lots with the Horticultural Society, and at the cost of only a few million dollars,” Conway says. “Compare that to incarceration costs per person, or the cost of poverty, and the benefits far outweigh everything else.”
A decade-long study of the greening program in Philadelphia looked at lots in four areas that were revitalized. It found a direct association between blighted vacant lots and gun assaults; after those lots were cleaned up, there were statistically significant decreases in firearm violence and an uptick in residents’ overall health.
Another study, published in The American Journal of Public Health, backed up those findings. That study examined the results of Philadelphia’s blight-remediation programs on 5,112 vacant lots and buildings, and found that gun violence decreased by 39 percent when buildings were renovated and by almost 5 percent around vacant lots that were beautified. The researches concluded that “there is something unique to firearm violence that makes it especially treatable with programs that transform blighted urban environments.”
For every dollar spent on Philadelphia’s blight program, as much as $26 in net benefits were made.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE
Back in Detroit, George has seen similar returns through his work with Blight Busters. The organization has raised over $20 million from local businesses, sports teams and philanthropists to finance their continued revitalization efforts. He says there’s been a noticeable return on that investment.
An abandoned high school George helped clean up was eventually turned into a shopping center, a $33 million investment. And two blocks of now-prime retail space that Blight Busters renovated were recently snapped up for $3.5 million.
“Because of that $20 million investment, we’ve been able to attract millions of dollars more, [which goes] right back into our community,” George says.
The Blight Busters’ success didn’t just raise property values and make Detroit’s streets prettier and safer. It also became a model for other cities.
“Our investment, our time and energy, was worthwhile, because it not only saved our neighborhood but the whole city. When everyone left, we were holding down the fort till the calvary returned,” he says. “I know it’s because of our work that Detroit is on the right path to recovery. We were just a little ahead of the curve.”