Detroit’s Decline and Fall – Once More With Feeling

Just when you think that Detroit (or more accurately, what’s left of it) can’t sink any lower than it has, something comes along to prove you wrong. The August 23, 2011 issue of the  Detroit News reports the latest calamity, See Darren A. Nichols, Squatter Problem Balloons in Detroit. For the entire article, click here.

It seems that there are over 100,000 vacant properties in Detroit, so unsurprisingly, enterprising squatters are breaking and moving into those that appeal to them. Last year the city received 100 complaints about squatting. Now, the rate is up to 300, and the city has neither the resources nor the inclination to police the situation.

Efforts to evict the squatters are ineffective for two reasons. If you are a put-upon neighbor subjected to the squatters’ misbehavior, and you call the cops, more often than not  they only tell the complainants (usually neighbors of the illegally occupied structure) that there is no proof that the putative squatters are not the owners. The cops are in no position to conduct curbstone quiet title actions and decide who is legally in the right. This is a real problem because the record owners of many of these houses have moved out a long time ago, or are gone because they have been foreclosed on.  And so, the poor neighbors subjected to all sorts of obnoxious behavior by the squatters in the first situation can do nothing because there is no one around to establish an ownership interest that is adverse to the squatters’. And in the second situation title is in the lender (often a bank) that has not lodged a complaint and couldn’t care less about cleaning up the neighborhood.

Naturally, if you are an unfortunate neighbor of one of  these houses that are occupied by squatters, you have no standing to sue them because you are not the owner of the occupied property. Besides, local laws are so tenant and squatter-friendly that evictions are difficult and costly, and even if you sue for nuisance, the squatters can just melt into the night and take up residence in some other vacant home. And they are judgment-proof in any event. So what’s the point of suing them for nuisance?

As all that is going on, the bien pensant planning folks talk about converting Detroit into farms. Yeah. Right. In Mark Steyn’s immortal words, maybe they can graze Holsteins between crack houses.

So what does all that have to do with eminent domain? Allow us to remind you that Detroit was a pioneer in the use of eminent domain for urban redevelopment purposes. Among its other excesses,  it destroyed the Poletown neighborhood and drove out its lower middle-class inhabitants to provide room for a General Motors Cadillac factory. Of course, GM never lived up to its employment projections and never came close to the 6000 planned jobs it used in justification of this caper. It was lucky to reach one-third to one-half of that number. And in the long run GM went bankrupt anyway. Ditto for Chrysler which was also the beneficiary of such municipal largesse.

And what was the tab for all that? Oh, some $200,000,000 in public funds. GM got a sweetheart deal and a big tax break – the public in whose name this taking occurred, got screwed. As we are fond of saying: Your tax money at work.

And the Poletown affair was only one event in Detroit’s chain of eminent domain abuses, such as the Cassesse case and the Foster v. Detoit federal litigation that pioneered relief for property owners subjected to precondemnation blight that ensued when the city announced its intention to condemn the targeted properties, but then delayed interminably or harassed the owners in an effort to lower their properties’ market value.