"I have been trying for the last 30-some years to get all these houses down that needs to be down," says Jean West. West has lived in her well-tended home in this increasingly troubled neighborhood on Detroit's northwest side for the past 38 years. She says the blight there is a testament to the crime that has plagued the area for decades.
"You don't want children going to school seeing where young men, over $200 drug deals, got killed and shot and fired up in that brick house," West says.
Jean hasn't taken the decline of her neighborhood sitting down. She says she has reached out to local leaders many times in the past. West says, "I have sent letters; I've called city council and talked to city council; I've sent pictures; I've begged and pleaded with city council to come and take these houses down, to get these houses torn down."
We first met Jean in February of 2009. That's when we told her that her neighborhood is one of nine areas targeted for federal money as part of the Neighborhood Stabilization Program approved by Congress in July 2008. Its aim is to help stem foreclosures and stabilize housing values. Detroit will get about $47 million, but the city plans to use less than one-third to tear down blighted houses.
Marja Winters is the deputy director of Detroit's Planning and Development Department, which handles the NSP money. "We have about a hundred residential structures demolished or in process right now," according to Winters, "with the goal of about 350 to 400 being completed by the end of this year, so we're in the process of identifying where those other demolition opportunities might be."
But Winters says there is no guarantee there will be any demolitions in Jean's block or any other specific neighborhoods in the NSP plan.
"We do hope, however," Winters adds, "with the demolition that we'll be able to touch at least all the nine areas to some degree, but then focus in on maybe a four- to six-block radius within each of those nine target areas."
But blighted buildings have long been a problem in Detroit. According to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, in the 38 years Jean has lived in Detroit, there have been more than 173,000 demolitions. Despite that, U.S. Census Bureau figures show from 2006 to 2008, there were nearly 93,000 vacant housing units in Detroit, and only 6,000 of those were demolished. That's only about 6.5 percent. The city has yet to respond to our repeated requests for comment on its failure to keep up with the need for demolition and care for what has effectively become public property.
In the meantime, we returned to Jean West's house in October to see if any demolitions had taken place yet in her neighborhood. Jean says little has changed: "It's really, really bad here in Detroit, and don't let nobody tell you it's different. It's not. And don't let nobody tell you that crime has let up. It's not."
And Jean is left waiting. Again.
"It's not fair to the people who try to keep up their property, who do the right thing," West says. "You know? Thirty-eight years is a long time to be scuffling."