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On the November ballot: Detroit's Proposal N is all about fighting blight

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

What is Proposal N?

Proposal N (“N” stands for neighborhoods) is a measure Detroit voters have on their ballots this election year.

If voters approve Proposal N, the city will have the go-ahead to issue $250 million in bonds for blight remediation—that is, either taking down or rehabbing much of the city’s remaining stock of vacant homes. Proposal N proposes to tackle around 16,000 of those vacant properties, with around 8,000 salvageable homes targeted for rehab, and another 8,000 for demolition.

Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration is pushing Proposal N. The administration says the measure will not raise taxes, and that’s technically correct. However, if Proposal N is voted down, Detroiters will see their property tax rates drop modestly, because the city is about to retire some other debt.

Who’s for it?

Again, the Duggan administration is the main driver behind Proposal N. Duggan has said on numerous occasions that he’s “obsessed” with eliminating blight in Detroit, and his administration believes this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revitalize and boost quality of life in some of Detroit’s more neglected neighborhoods.

Since 2014, Duggan has overseen a massive demolition program that has taken down around 20,000 abandoned structures and transformed the city’s landscape already. Those demolitions were largely paid for with federal Hardest Hit Funds (HHF), which the city received authorization to divert from its original intent, which was to help prevent foreclosures.

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However, at least 20,000 vacant structures (probably more) still remain in the city. Arthur Jemison, the head of Detroit’s Housing and Revitalization Department, says now is the time to keep building on that momentum. Interest rates are at historic lows, and the city can focus its demolition and rehab efforts on neighborhoods that missed out on HHF-funded demolitions.

Jemison said the city will target its Proposal N efforts on those neighborhoods, and on places where there’s an occupied home with two vacant properties within 100 feet of it. Whether homes are demolished or “trashed out” and prepared for rehab will depend on the condition of the property.

Addresses concerns about demolition program

In pushing Proposal N, the Duggan Administration is also trying to reassure Detroiters that the problems that have plagued its demolition program in the past few years are over. Those problems include indictments and accusations of bid-rigging and kickbacks among contractors, a failure to consistently adhere to environmental protocols meant to mitigate the dangers of demolishing homes full of lead and asbestos, and a lack of minority-owned, Detroit-based contractors getting work.

Last year, Duggan proposed a “blight bond” similar to Proposal N, but the Detroit City Council didn’t approve it for the ballot because of those concerns. Duggan said he considered Council concerns and community feedback before coming back this yearwith Proposal N.

The biggest difference between Proposal N and the initial blight bond proposal is that Proposal N will put at least $90 million toward preserving some homes, rather than demolishing all of them. The city now pledges to “partner with Detroit Community Development Organizations and other qualified groups to rehab homes and redevelop property in the neighborhoods.” It also pledges to give preference to Detroiters to acquire and rehab properties in their own neighborhoods.

The administration also says it it will work with the Detroit City Council to “prioritize contracts with demolition and preservation companies headquartered in Detroit, and companies that hire Detroiters.” And crucially, the administration has pledged to bring demolitions back under direct city oversight, where it says “projects will undergo rigorous supervision and oversight to ensure that every house demolished or preserved is done the right way.” Previously, demolitions had been performed by the quasi-governmental Detroit Land Bank Authority.

Who’s against it?

While the Duggan Administration and some city neighborhood groups have been campaigning hard for Proposal N, other neighborhood and activist groups are urging Detroiters to vote no.

These opponents cite a range of concerns about the proposal, but most of them boil down to a lack of trust that the administration will follow through on its promise to change its approach to blight.

While the administration has pledged things like more housing preservation, more work for Detroiters and Detroit-based companies, and a better-run demolition program under direct city oversight, the ballot proposal itself says nothing about those things—it simply asks voters to approve the bond issue “for the purpose of paying the cost of neighborhood improvements in the City through property rehabilitation, demolition and other blight remediation activities.” So while Duggan will undoubtedly be under pressure from City Council and elsewhere to hold to those pledges, nothing is written in stone.

Some community groups are dubious that the city will actually follow through on its intent to give Detroiters first preference when it comes to acquiring properties in their neighborhood, and that community development groups actually have the funds and infrastructure in place to complete extensive housing rehabs. Instead, they fear Proposal N will simply be a bonanza for big developers, or there will simply be more vacant property in the city.

Other concerns are more fundamental. Branden Snyder, Executive Director of the grassroots activist group Detroit Action, says Proposal N isn’t really about fundamentally grappling with the causes of blight, like foreclosures.

“It’s the city’s fault at the end of the day, and they’re now asking us to fix it,” Snyder said. “And they’re asking for a $250-million bond, that will put up another $240-million in interest, and actually not solving any of the conditions that led to blight.”

Snyder and some others note that Detroit routinely over-assessed property owners, particularly low-income property owners, for years (and some researchers who study this issue say that practice continues). They say rather than spending money on more demolitions, the city should think about ways to compensate Detroiters who lost their homes to unjust foreclosures.

Finally, there are budgetary concerns. While Detroit is now a few years beyond bankruptcy, and the city says debt payments aren’t a problem, it did suffer a major budget hit with the COVID-19 pandemic. With projected revenues down, more budget cuts likely, and additional pension obligations looming, some experts wonderwhether it’s a good idea for Detroit to take on more debt right now.

To sum up: the Duggan Administration believes that Proposal N is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle the pervasive blight that haunts Detroit. Opponents say this isn’t the right way to address blight, and they’re not convinced the city will keep many of the pledges it’s made to entice people to vote for Proposal N. For the average Detroit voter, it will likely come down to their own experience with neighborhood blight, and how much faith they have in the Duggan Administration to keep its promises.

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Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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