Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Death and Life of Great Cities

The NY Times has two excellent pieces on the efforts of individuals and local gov't to deal with a post-crash environment wherein hundreds if not thousands of properties lie vacant and unused in many of America's largest municipalities. 

The first is set in Detroit, and describes a small, but growing, group of artists and bohos seeking cheap housing. With the decentralizing power of the internet, it is no longer necessary for the starving artist to starve in LA, SF, or NYC. He can buy a cheap house in Detroit and follow his own path. 

A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

The second is in The Magazine and is more epic in scope, describing Cleveland's efforts to combat, not just the blight brought on by foreclosures, but also the blight wrought by negligent banks and speculators who have bought distressed properties in bulk, and then allowed them to lie fallow. 

Reading it though, one is struck by how many of the problems complained of seem to be the result of rigid adherence to too many city codes. For example, banks seem to be able to ignore property tax and utility bills with impunity with the result that people buying "cheap" distressed property can be socked with thousands of dollars worth of liens. Surely, Cleveland can come up with an amnesty program for these sorts of situations. 

Worse, Cleveland's enforcement of its civil codes has become so weak that a municipal judge who ran the city's housing court became the only part of the city's entire governing structure that was effectively targeting the (often out-of-state) banks that were slowly wrecking Cleveland's neighborhoods. Often banks would be tried in abstentia and could be hit with thousands of dollars in fines for various housing code violations. That's the kind of grit and pluck I like! 

But, one has to ask: doesn't Cleveland have, like, a mayor or some such? It seems like a Big City politico could go a long way campaigning against the destruction of the neighborhoods and housing stock by outsiders, while simultaneously making it easier for new residents to either rent or buy foreclosed properties instead of just letting them sit there. Instead, the same inertia and corruption that lies at the heart of many cities seems to persist despite conditions that should really give rise to a popular revolt against them. 

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