Detroit’s Project 14

Project 14 is police code for "return to normal operations."  And that's what Detroit is trying to do — bring the city back to "normal," to stabilize after a debilitating blow to its economy.  The project, announced earlier this week, wants to solve two problems with one plan:  to get more police presence in the city, and to fill the city's acres of vacant houses.  The tagline of the project is "Live where you protect & serve," and the mission statement says it's important because "Project 14 takes two challenges facing Detroit – public safety and vacant homes — and turns them into an oportunity for neighborhood revitalization."   

Commenters to the Detroit Free Press articles were off-the-charts angry.  Freep's editors ( is the paper's website) were busy all day deleting presumably obscene or racist or otherwise objectionable posts.  People were up in arms (pun intended) that officers could buy a home in Detroit for $1,000!  And they'd get $150,000 to renovate it!  All from taxpayer money! 

Let's unpack(!) the plan.  

Yes, Detroit police officers, half of whom now live outside the city, are being encouraged to come back.  Once the law requiring them to live within city limits was struck down in 1999, there was Blue Flight — probably similar to White Flight of the '60s and '70s.  To woo them back, Mayor Dave Bing announced Project 14 — allowing officers to purchase vacant homes currently owned by the Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA) for as little as $1000 DOWN — NOT $1000 total.   They then have to qualify for a mortgage, which the city estimates would run between $500 and $1000 a month, including principal and interest, taxes and insurance.  They expect the 200 houses (only a handful of which are listed so far) that will ultimately be in the program to appraise somewhere between $40,000 and $80,000, and so far are in two neighborhoods:  historic (and beautiful) Boston-Edison, and East English Village, also an historic 'hood. 

The homes will be renovated (not sure yet by whom — calls to DLBA haven't been returned), using Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds — yes, otherwise known as taxpayer dollars.  In fact, $30 million of federal stimulus funds.  The DLBA website says the houses will have "modern floor plans," a "minimum" of two bathrooms, off-street parking, and central air (that's a chunk of renovation $$ right there).  Being a lover of old houses, I so hope these won't be gutted and turned into modern blank boxes, despite DLBA's promise to "restor(e) grand architectural features."  Hopefully, that will save the mantels and hardwood floors and Detroit's famous Pewabic tiles, which were a proud feature of homes built back in the day.  Upgrades over the standard package, whatever they are, will be charged to the officer. 

Many angry commenters complained that this was a waste of their tax dollars… that police wouldn't come back… that the program should be open to other residents (the city says next up are firefighters, and possibly EMTs, teachers, and other public servants).  All valid issues.

But when your city is looking at bulldozing some sections that are so pocked with vacancies it's no longer cost effective to bring services to them; when your foreclosure rate is dire; when your tax base needs a boost; when you need police on the beat (and living next door), what have you got to lose?   The one thing Detroit does have is a city full of gorgeous architecture.  You've gotta be creative to save it. 

The Dollar House Program brought certain urban neighborhoods back from the brink in Baltimore in the 1970s…  In New York, in those hellish days after 9/11, I heard about a police officer who died that day — we went to speak to his neighbors, and discovered that he lived in one of the city's housing projects, through a program that offered free or low-cost digs to officers willing to make a home and offer some stability there.  There are probably dozens of similar programs across the country.  If you know of any, fill me in.  And do share your (non-racist, non-obscene) thoughts on Detroit's Project 14.   


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