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New to blight, stronger Detroit neighborhoods fight back

Overgrown grass and weeds are seen around a vacant house that has flowers painted on the boards to keep vandals out in the Brightmoor neighb
Overgrown grass and weeds are seen around a vacant house that has flowers painted on the boards to keep vandals out in the Brightmoor neighb

By Nick Carey

DETROIT (Reuters) - One in 10 homes in Detroit's middle class Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood has been abandoned, a low number for a city where about a fifth of properties are empty, but it still troubles retiree residents Clarenda Webb and Beverly Frederick.

Both joined the Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation's Vacant Property Task Force, formed in 2011 to protect the area from vandals and thieves by patrolling on foot and by car.

This has become a full time, unpaid job for Webb, 70, and Frederick, 56. With their detective work, the group takes recalcitrant or absent property owners to court to enforce the city's property codes.

"We work to make sure neighbors don't accept blight because if you accept it, it gets worse," said Frederick, a former manager at AT&T.

On the day Frederick and Webb spoke to Reuters they reported a suspicious car in the garage of an abandoned home, which turned out to have been stolen. Volunteers here have cultivated relations with the understaffed police force, which have started to pay off.

Grandmont Rosedale is among several Detroit neighborhoods that do not fit the urban wasteland stereotype commonly associated with the city. Even as a quarter of the city's population left in the last decade, neighborhoods like East English Village and Boston Edison have remained vibrant.

Detroit's fiscal crisis is so severe that Michigan's Republican Governor Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, in March to fix its massive long-term debt problem.

In a June 14 report, Orr said the police force's manpower has been cut by 40 percent in the past decade, and the emergency-call response rate is more than 45 minutes above the national average of 11 minutes.

To protect the city's pockets of strength, local volunteers have stepped in to root out criminals or tackle absentee property owners.

"If Detroit is going to survive it will be because of areas like this," said Marcia Closson, 74, a volunteer in North Rosedale Park as she tended a flower bed in a local park.

The city is examining more efficient ways to serve thinly populated areas. Orr's restructuring plan will use some savings from cutbacks to invest in public safety in stronger areas, said Orr's spokesman, Bill Nowling.

But community-minded residents in some of the more stable neighborhoods refuse to wait for action.

"Any neighborhood can become a wasteland," said William Barlage, head of East English Village Homeowner's Association on Detroit's east side. "It takes a community to stop it."

ADOPT A HOME

Before the 2008 housing crisis, vacancies were rare in East English Village. Homes sold for up to $260,000. But vacancies hit 10 percent after the market collapse, and many homes now fetch no more than $30,000.

The neighborhood's homeowners association has assigned residents to adopt abandoned homes, cut the grass and even park cars in driveways to make the homes look occupied. Today, 64 block captains monitor empty homes and hand out property code citations in lieu of the city.

The Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation has used a variety of tools to buy, renovate and sell 27 formerly empty homes, including federal dollars and foundation grants, said Executive Director Tom Goddeeris.

The group also helps homeowners find financing for repairs.

"If you can't afford to fix your roof on a block with empty homes, you may just give up," Goddeeris said. "But if we can help fix the roof we can stabilize that home and the block."

Michigan Community Resources, which provides pro bono legal advice to community groups, recently completed a pilot program to help local groups catalog property code violations by small investors who bought homes cheaply at auction but have done nothing to renovate them or rent them out.

"Ultimately, the idea is to make it expensive for absentee owners to neglect their properties," said Danielle Lewinski, the group's planning director.

In Grandmont Rosedale, Webb said, local activists will continue the fight. "The only way to get this done is to do it ourselves," she said.

(Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by David Greising, Frances Kerry, Mary Milliken and Richard Chang)

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