by John Gallagher|Detroit Free Press
Planners working on a blueprint for future Detroit development say it’s a mistake to keep auctioning off the city’s abandoned and vacant property for pittances in back property taxes.
The purchasers are often speculators less interested in creating a unified vision for dealing with vacant Detroit land estimated to be the size of Paris, if assembled into one large plot.
The Wayne County treasurer began the largest-ever auction of tax-foreclosed land on Friday, offering homes, buildings and vacant lots seized for back property taxes.
The 21,449 parcels is up from just 2,000 a few years ago, a reflection of the Great Recession and mortgage foreclosure crisis. The vast majority — 19,056 parcels, or 89% — are inside the city of Detroit and many, if not most, are vacant residential lots.
Created by Mayor Dave Bing, Detroit Works has been drafting a massive blueprint for dealing with many of Detroit’s major problems, including what to do with vacant, unproductive land.
The team estimates that of the roughly 150,000 vacant parcels in the city, various units of government own about 65,000, or around 40%. The rest remains in private hands.
Some Detroit Works planners want to shut down or severely modify future auctions. In the past, some parcels auctioned by the county saw no improvements and did nothing to help the city.
“That’s a big problem and everybody’s working together to try to solve it,” said Dan Kinkead, an architect consulting with the Detroit Works team. “A big part of it will be eliminating the auction as it stands today.”
At the very least, they say, the sale should restrict participation to cut out speculators or those with multiple code violations on property they already own.
David Szymanski, deputy Wayne County treasurer, said he agreed that the legally mandated annual auction probably isn’t the best way to dispose of tax-foreclosed properties. But it’s a complex issue, he said, and “what works for Highland Park doesn’t necessarily work in Livonia.”
He said the county has been taking part in discussions, coordinated by the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., with other public agencies to come up with better ways to coordinate policies and actions on land held by the public.
“Doing away with the auctions is a great idea,” Szymanski said in an e-mail to the Free Press last week.
Alan Mallach, a New Jersey-based planner and consultant to Detroit Works, said the property should be put in “responsible private hands.”
Some community leaders echo the criticism of the annual auction.
Khalil Ligon, the project manager for LEAP, a lower east-side Detroit neighborhood planning group, said the auction is “a point of contention” because property is often sold to people unable to redevelop it.
“Those properties remain eyesores,” he said Friday. “They’re not maintained, they’re not rehabbed. They still sit as blight. I don’t think that process is necessarily community friendly.”
Questions about the county’s annual land auction are part of a larger debate over what to do with all government-owned land in Detroit.
Complicating the process is that public ownership is spread among multiple agencies, including at least two City of Detroit departments, the Wayne County treasurer, Detroit Public Schools and the city, county, and state land banks.
“Each of the agencies has a very distinct mission,” said Toni Griffin, a New York-based planner who is a top consultant to Detroit Works. “These agencies have to find a way to link up and coordinate their mission.”
Griffin and other Detroit Works team leaders say Detroit would see better results if all the public bodies that control vacant land coordinated their efforts. For example, Detroit Public Schools might sell vacant school sites by first working with the city’s Planning & Development Department on plans for each school neighborhood.
And by keeping the parcels in public hands, government could more easily assemble land in the future for any large-scale projects.
Eliminating the county’s annual auction could create a new set of problems. Holding vast quantities of land involves maintenance costs, insurance and other expenses.
Planners have suggested that some of the vacant land in Detroit could be turned to urban farms, but the Detroit Works team is mapping out a whole series of suggested land uses depending on current conditions in Detroit.
“An urban farm may be one option,” Mallach said, but “one of the things we really stress is, it’s not a one-size fits all.”
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or[email protected]
Each year, the Wayne County treasurer holds an auction to sell properties that have been seized for nonpayment of property taxes. The sale takes place in two parts.
Through Thursday, the county conducts an online auction in which buyers can purchase properties by paying the amount of unpaid tax, which sometimes runs to thousands of dollars.
In October, the county conducts a second auction in which buyers can bid on remaining parcels for the cost of the foreclosure process, which is $500.
For a full list of this year’s properties for sale and other information about the auction, visit the website of the Wayne County treasurer at www .co. wayne.mi.us /treasurer.htm .
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