I just heard on the radio this morning that Detroit, in addition to being one of the most economically depressed cities in the nation, is the second emptiest, after the relatively prosperous Las Vegas, Nevada. In Vegas, it seems, they over anticipated growth and built too many homes. In Detroit, it’s just that over half the population left.
According to a recent reports, houses in downtown Detroit are presently selling for an average of $7K a piece. Several hundred, from what I’m told, can be had for under $1K. According to real estate agent Ian Mason, who recently spoke with CBS News, he’s recently sold foreclosed homes in the city for as little as one dollar.
According to the Detroit News, the 139-square-mile city, which was once home to over 2 million people, and now has fewer than half that number, may have as many as “60,000 to 80,000 abandoned businesses and homes.”
The state of Michigan is one of only two states in the union – the other being Rhode Island – currently losing population.
So, as I was sitting there in my car, listening to people talk about how dire the situation is in Detroit, I began to wonder if there might be an opportunity here. I began to wonder if maybe, with all the funds we’re talking about investing in ambitious programs, the federal government might be willing to sponsor something like a modern version of the Homestead Act.
For those of you new to the country, there was a piece of legislation signed into law in 1862 by President Lincoln that gave title to 160 acres to any man willing to venture beyond the original 13 colonies, clear the land, and make it hospitable to “civilized” life. The law was know as the Homestead Act, and, according to Wikipedia, under the law, within just four years, 1.6 million homesteads were granted, totaling near 10% of the United States. There were, of course, abuses and worse, especially as relates to Native Americans, but, all in all, I think it’s seen historically as a success – it filled the interior of the still new country.
And I’m not sure what urban homesteading would look like, and how exactly properties would be apportioned. I’m thinking, however, that there would be an application process, seeking people with certain proven skill sets. You would essentially give them a home and property for free, with the understanding that it will belong to them if they inhabit the property as their primary residence for some number of years, and improve whatever structures are standing on it, bringing them to code, etc. Maybe entire blocks are given to young architects, builders, farmers, co-housing developers, inventors, artists, etc.
Maybe there’s even an accompanying reality television show following the progress of these groups as they break soil. It could be a national test bed.
Detroit could be the laboratory for the future. Why not be ambitious with the stimulus money and try to build a sustainable modern city from the ruins of early city that had been written off? Even if we gave away the land, and provided people with a stipend of, say, $25K a year for three years, and access to 0% loans, I’m guessing that you’d still be able to pull it off for less than a small fraction of what we’re investing in the banking sector… I wonder if Levin and Stabenow ever allow themselves to think big, crazy, hopeful thoughts like this?
[The home shown above, located at 8111 Traverse Street, in Detroit, recently sold for $1.]