DETROIT, MI – More than a year after Mayor Dave Bing launched a campaign to lure police and firefighters back to the city by selling rehabbed homes on the cheap, the program has sold six houses.
City officials call that a start to a Project 14 program they’re confident will be a success.
Skeptics say it’s a questionable use of $5 million in federal grant money that could be spent elsewhere, including on demolitions and home improvements for needy residents.
Taxpayers have spent $500,000 to rehab six homes, including $160,000 on one.
Some in law enforcement say the effort may be well-intentioned, but officers won’t return to the city in meaningful numbers as long as crime, high taxes and school troubles persist.
“I am surprised they actually have six,” said Mark Diaz, an 18-year police veteran who lives in Holly Township. “Police officers have a front-row seat to the fact that we are understaffed. Do we really want to put our own families at risk?”
Those who live in neighborhoods served by the project said it could increase the tax base and attract more homeowners.
“The process has been lengthy in some cases, but it’s been done right,” said William Barlage, president of the East English Village Association, who expects a police officer to move into the neighborhood soon through the program. “We’ve seen a lot of interest.”
The project was announced in February 2011 and gets its name from police code for “back to normal.” Bing has said he wants to reverse a decade-long exodus of public safety officers since the state outlawed residency requirements in 1999. About half the city’s 2,700 officers now live outside the city.
Here’s how the program works: Nonprofits and the Detroit Land Bank use federal money to fix homes in Boston Edison, East English Village, North Rosedale Park and Green Acres.
The homes are then offered to police and firefighters living in the suburbs, who can qualify for up to $25,000 in forgivable mortgage loans.
A similar deal recently was extended to all other city employees, who can get up to $15,000 in mortgage help.
The mortgage assistance comes from private banks, and participants pay normal property tax rates. More than 100 non-public safety employees have started the buying process.
Karla Henderson, Bing’s group executive of planning and facilities, acknowledged the program started slow. But she said it’s picking up. Federal funds are paying to renovate another nine homes for law enforcement, while another dozen officers and firefighters have signed up to begin the process, she said.
“We expect our number of participants to continue to grow,” Henderson wrote in an email. She said two cities nationwide want to replicate the project.
It benefited Officer Ernest Cleaves Jr., 31, a native Detroiter who moved to a Brownstown Township apartment but missed the city. He chose a four-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot brick house in Boston Edison.
He bought it for $50,000 after a $160,000 renovation that installed stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.
Cleaves said he understands why some colleagues may be hesitant to return to Detroit, but his neighbors have been ecstatic.
“I still have people coming up to me to say, ‘We are so happy you are here,'” said Cleaves, who moved in December.
“Every day, I wake up and am so amazed. It’s a wonderful house.”
Others, including resident Harvey Turner, said it’s hard to contemplate spending $160,000 on one house.
“That’s way too much,” said Turner, who leads the Hull Street Block Club on the city’s east side. “For that kind of money, they could do a lot more and split it up among five or six homes.”
Henderson said homes like Cleaves’ can cost more to renovate because they are in historic districts and must meet federal standards.
Turner said the city does little to help struggling Detroiters become homeowners. Turner said he recently helped three families buy $500 homes from the Wayne County treasurer’s tax foreclosure auction. Neighbors pitched in to make the homes habitable.
“Dave Bing has to realize he’s not mayor of downtown, Midtown and select neighborhoods,” Turner said. “It’s a great idea, but the way they are carrying it out makes everyone else feel abandoned again.”
Councilman Kwame Kenyatta said he’s heard similar complaints from residents: “You have to offer some incentives to folks who do live here. I don’t see anything for them.”
Barlage said the city has to start somewhere.
“It’s not just the investment in one address,” he said. “It’s the investment in the neighbor next door and the block and the street that really moves it forward.”
From The Detroit News.