In a Nutshell
- Blight is a problem in communities throughout Michigan, but it is a complex issue that can be difficult to quantify and address as it is locally subjective and experienced differently in urban and rural communities.
- State law provides some tools for local governments to remediate blight, but they need to be flexible enough to meet unique local needs. Also, many of the communities that struggle with blight are more fiscally challenged so finding the revenue to address blight can be a major issue.
- Blight remediation and prevention is ongoing. Some communities are trying to actively rid themselves of blighted properties while others are using economic development tools to prevent blight.
I have recently begun researching the problem of blight in Michigan and it is a complex issue. While state law defines a blighted area as a developed or undeveloped business or residential property marked by a demonstrated pattern of deterioration in physical, economic, or social conditions, blight is a localized issue that affects both urban and rural areas. It is somewhat subjective and difficult to quantify because it may be observable at different stages of severity. Blight is a stage of depreciation rather than an objective condition, which means that blight is created over time through neglect or damaging actions.
Since blight can be locally subjective, the conditions that constitute blight are broadly construed to permit a municipality to make an early identification of problems and to take quick remedial action to correct a demonstrated pattern of deterioration and to prevent worsening of blight conditions. However, an overly broad definition of blight can give too much discretion to municipalities. It can be a challenging balancing act for the government.
Blight is not just a big city problem
Blight is often associated with Michigan’s biggest city, Detroit. The City has struggled for years with declining population, property over-assessments, tax foreclosures, and controversies around its land bank and multi-million dollar demolition program. All are issues contributing to, and sustaining, blighted properties. A 2014 Bridge Michigan article estimated that more than 84,600 Detroit properties were blighted at that time, constituting more than one in five parcels citywide. A 2019 survey of 507 Detroiters conducted by University of Michigan’s Detroit Metro Area Communities Study found that nearly three-quarters of residents report blighted properties in their neighborhoods and more than half report some blight removal activities in their neighborhood in the last five years.
Detroit is joined in its struggle to manage and prevent blight by other big cities, including Flint. A 2015 report identified over 19,000 properties in need of blight elimination in the city at a cost of more than $107 million. The city is working to update those numbers to identify what resources are currently needed to address blight.
The City of Adrian, which has a population of just over 20,000 and is located in rural Lenawee County, also struggles with blight management and prevention. The Blight Elimination Initiative Committee recently shared a goal of investing $10 million over 10 years to fully eradicate blighted properties from the small city. To give some perspective, the city’s total Fiscal Year 2020 governmental funds revenues were $16.5 million.
Adrian is an example of a small city struggling with blight, but it is a rural problem as well. While blight can be harder to identify and quantify in rural communities that are more geographically spread out and might have less code enforcement and zoning capabilities, the state has recognized the problem of rural blight by making grants available specifically to smaller, rural communities to remediate blight. Research on rural blight has highlighted its prevalence and, also, the need to manage rural blight and rural problems differently from urban blight. However, this research also highlights the lack of understanding of rural issues generally and rural blight specifically.
A problem ignored only grows
When blight is not addressed, it tends to get worse. Moderate blight can worsen and spread to other properties if it is not addressed. Blighted properties can be shelters for illegal activity and structurally unsound buildings that are havens for infestation. This does not benefit the surrounding properties.
In Adrian, it is estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the blighted residential properties are rental properties. This can lead to a cyclical problem where the issues of blight are not remedied by the property owner because they do not live in the property. Renters can get stuck living in unsanitary conditions, but also face losing their home if blight is not addressed. Blight tends to impact individuals with lower socioeconomic status the most and it usually is more severe in communities that are fiscally challenged. This makes managing and preventing blight difficult in many communities.
Current infrastructure for managing blight
The state does provide local governments, both urban and rural, with the authority to address blight through a number of state laws. The Blighted Area Rehabilitation act defines blight and gives counties and local governments the authority to prevent, eliminate, or rehabilitate blight through purchase, condemnation, and/or eminent domain. The Neighborhood Area Improvements act authorizes local governments to carry out public improvements in neighborhoods to prevent blight. Further state laws deal with blight prevention through economic development or provide public-private partnerships to fund blight remediation through tax-increment financing.
One huge part of the infrastructure for managing blight is the state’s land bank program. State law provides for the creation of land bank fast track authorities to assist local governments in remediating blight. Land banks assist local governments by acquiring property and quieting or clearing titles when necessary. They take hold of properties that the private market is not interested in because of the costs of remediation or the associated delinquent taxes. The first land bank was created in 2004 and the state now has 46 individual county land banks and one state land bank that serves the remaining 37 counties.
Land banks can help communities address blight, but they cannot ameliorate all instances of blight and have not been without controversy. They must be held accountable and transparent and complement other community efforts to prevent and remediate blight.
Blight remediation and prevention is ongoing
Communities both big and small are constantly attempting to manage and prevent blight. Some communities, like Adrian and Detroit, are actively trying to rid themselves of their current blighted properties. Others are using economic development tools to prevent blight. Some areas rely on their land banks, others on committees or local government officials to identify, monitor, and ameliorate blight.
These communities across the state rely on tax revenues, federal and state grants, and other funds to address issues related to blight. Here at the Research Council, we are diving deeper into the issue of blight in Michigan and will be looking more closely at all aspects of blight remediation and prevention in Michigan, including how to quantify blight (can it be done?), options for local governments to manage current blight and prevent future blight, and how it is currently funded. If you want to see communities across the state thrive and become places where people want to be, stay tuned for our deep dive into blight remediation in Michigan.