Finding a way forward on blight

Danville has a blight problem. That statement will not make headlines. We have known this for decades, and in the past several years, the city has taken many steps in addressing this problem, primarily centered around demolitions.

Of the 2,000 plus blighted structures in our city, we are only able to demolish roughly 100 a year. Clearly, we cannot demolish our way out of this problem.

Fortunately, our city leaders recognize this as well and have adopted other measures in addition to demolitions, including a low-interest loan pool for repairs, a receivership program and the establishment of the Old West End Rental Inspection District. With that being said, there are still other methods that we can, and must, explore.

Recently, I proposed to my fellow council members that Danville adopt an online auction system for the blighted properties that the city is in possession of. Granted, many of the properties the city has are beyond any hopes of repair and demolition is the only viable solution. However, there are some properties that can, and should, be restored and returned to occupation. For these homes, an online auction system would be a prudent and financially responsible solution.

Several cities across the nation have recently put in place some form of an auction system as a way to deal with their blighted properties, with Detroit being the most high-profile example. Very rarely do I ever look to Detroit for ideas but in this case, they have found a good one. Their program, known as “Building Detroit” is simple: a website is setup that features all of the blighted properties that the city has made available for purchase. If a person sees a property he likes, he can bid on it.

There are, however, some strings attached:

» You must be a Michigan resident, a non-Michigan resident who will live in the property after rehab or a company or organization authorized to do business in Michigan;

» The person or the entity they represent cannot have any unpaid delinquent property taxes or any unresolved blight or code enforcements in the city of Detroit; and

» They are also limited to the purchase of one property per month through the bidding process.

In addition to these stipulations, there are requirements to meet after the property has been purchased:

» Within 30 days after closing, the buyer must provide the Land Bank an executed copy of a contract to rehab the home.

» If they can demonstrate to the Land Bank they have the skills to rehab the house themselves, within 30 days after closing they must provide the Land Bank receipts showing they have purchased the materials necessary.

» Within six months after closing, they must provide the Land Bank with a Certificate of Occupancy for the house and demonstrate that the house has an occupant.

» If the buyer fails to meet these deadlines, they forfeit both the purchase price and the property and are forbidden to bid in all future auctions.

Obviously these requirements are strict and some would deem too stringent to be worth the time and effort. These requirements, however, are very important and would be vital to the success of a potentially similar program here in Danville.

First of all, they prevent “slum lords” from coming in and buying up large amounts of cheap property and then sitting on them for several years. We are dealing with some of these issues already. Second, the potential buyers would know exactly what they are getting into and what is required of them before they make a purchase.

Admittedly, I was, at first, skeptical of how successful a program like this could be but after doing a lot of research, I’ve found the results in Detroit and other cities has been very encouraging. Many houses are being sold far above the median values of their surrounding properties. Most of them have been rehabbed and inhabited within the six-month window.

In Danville’s case, we may only be dealing with a couple dozen homes that would fall into this auction system, but at a time when budgets are becoming increasingly tight and the costs for demolitions continue to rise, we need to utilize every tool available to us in our efforts against blight. This partnership with the private sector can provide that and save the taxpayers valuable dollars at the same time.

What’s most interesting about this proposal is how it came to my attention. It was a citizen who sent me the link to a newspaper article discussing the success of the Detroit Land Bank program. It only reaffirmed what I came to believe several years ago: many of the solutions to the problems Danville faces will be found outside of city hall. That’s not to say that good ideas don’t come from our city leaders, because they do. But I’ve often found that creativity and innovation are best discovered in the minds of the people who call Danville their home.

As we find a way forward on blight, this new land auction proposal is a great example of how such a task force would be beneficial.

I strongly believe that the more we can get our citizens informed, engaged and involved in the issues we face, the better off Danville will be. Our greatest asset is our people and it will be the people of our city that propel Danville forward into a new era of prosperity. I’ve often said that I still believe Danville’s best days lie ahead and when we’re working together to achieve our goals, those best days become closer to reality. Because when we stand together, there’s nothing we can’t achieve.

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