Category: Community Published on Friday, 05 July 2013 10:00 Written by Nick Carey, Reuters
The house, sold at an auction last fall, sits at the edge of Detroit's infamous urban blight. And scrap thieves, or "strippers," have taken anything of value, including the kitchen sink and metal pipes, requiring repairs of up to $15,000.
"You could take a great picture of this house, put it online and make buyers ... think it's a good thing," said Antoine Benjamin, chief operating officer of real estate firm Benjigates Estates, which bought the house at a Wayne County auction to renovate and rent out. "But you have to understand how close you are to wasteland."
Low property prices in Detroit in the wake of the housing crash in 2008 have lured investors from California to China. Speculators bank on high returns despite a financial crisis so dire Detroit's state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has cited a 50-50 chance the city will file for bankruptcy.
But small-time speculators eyeing quick profits often let the houses fall into disrepair because they lack the funds for renovations or end up abandoning them - and frequently do not pay real estate taxes.
In 2011 alone, the last year for which data is available, Wayne County had to write off $170 million in uncollected taxes on Detroit properties. About 100,000 city-owned properties, many of which are abandoned, are in limbo until a study of local property values is completed.
"The city has made no effort to make those 100,000 available, so we don't have a real market," said Jerry Paffendorf of Loveland Technologies, whose widely followed property database includes Detroit's tax delinquencies and foreclosures.
Bill Nowling, a spokesman for Orr, said the city does not intend to sell right now because there is no way to discover fair market value, and the emergency manager is awaiting the result of the Michigan Tax Board study.
"There is serious concern that the assessment process in Detroit is broken and many, if not most, properties have been inappropriately assessed at artificially high levels for years," Nowling wrote in an email.
A state plan to demolish abandoned buildings may eliminate some of the blight, but would do little to resolve city property codes that are unclear or largely ignored.
"The lack of property code enforcement means there is no risk for investors who buy here and neglect their properties," said Khalilah Gaston, executive director of the local nonprofit Vanguard Community Development Corporation. "We have to ensure there is risk and not just reward."
One speculator, 22-year-old graduate student Darin McLeskey, who also runs a non-profit urban farming group, noted Detroit's many rules on property use but few resources to police them.
"With no code enforcement, it's the Wild West," said McLeskey, who moved to Detroit from an outer suburb. And he has taken his shot, spending $25,000 to snap up 20 empty plots and three homes in the city.
McLeskey is a rarity among speculators because he plans to make Detroit his home. Detroit's population fell 25 percent in the past decade to 700,000, well off its 1950 peak of 1.8 million, as manufacturing declined and white residents moved to the suburbs following race riots in the late 1960s.
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