I'd Buy That for a Dollar!

by Addison Del Mastro


Detroit. It’s become a byword, if not a cliché, for post-industrial decay. 

Lurid headlines about the “fabulous ruins of Detroit” are commonplace. Urban explorers offer clandestine tours of the theaters, hotels, factories, and entire neighborhoods that are slowly sinking into the ground. It is a sad state of affairs that is repeated in city after city in America’s “Rust Belt,” the glory of which has long since been transferred to places like Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

Yet Detroit, more than any other American city, has also been a laboratory of sorts for imagining a new kind of economy and a new, positive spin on post-industrial society. The ruin is so great – about a third of the city’s massive 139 square miles is empty or derelict – and the financial state so dire, that the idea of simply starting over from scratch may not be a pipe dream. Indeed, if things go on as they are going, it may eventually become a necessity.

The new vision for the economy has been broadly dubbed “resilience.” The idea is roughly that rather than focusing on growth, expansion, and ever-increasing material living standards, the economy should focus on everyday quality of life, promoting community and small or local business, and ensuring environmental sustainability. In other words, meeting human needs and environmental needs first, and meeting human wants second, in reason. This will create a more stable and fulfilling, if simpler, lifestyle.

Building sustainable urban farms on some of Detroit’s empty blocks is a longstanding idea, and it has already begun, albeit in a rather uncoordinated way. Tightly-knit, walkable, mixed-use development, rather than suburban automobile-dependent sprawl, has been another idea. 

In the last chapter of Annie Leonard’s book The Story of Stuff, Leonard describes an alternate future in which her community has shifted to a resilience-based economy. An adjustment? Absolutely. An impossibility? Not at all. There is no reason we could not change her model neighborhood from New Orleans to Detroit.

Before the urban farms and other shifts begin in earnest, however, the thousands of vacant houses have to be addressed. Some will and must be bulldozed. But for those that remain, what better way to start a new kind of American economy than by turning the failed real estate market on its head? 

"But for those that remain, what better way to start a new kind of American economy than by turning the failed real estate market on its head?"

Forget $500 – the price at which many Detroit homes cannot be sold  – how about one dollar? And while they’re at it, the city should also slash property taxes for new residents. The one dollar price should include the stipulation that the new owner renovate or at least reasonably maintain the property.

The idea is not so far out when you consider that demolition is itself an expensive proposition, costing at a minimum $5,000 and often up to $20,000. There’s something poignant about that: it costs more to tear down a house than to actually purchase one. And so like used waste electronics which are unwanted but difficult to recycle, the houses simply sit there, home to no one except occasional squatters, drug addicts, and packs of feral dogs.

So a one dollar house program might well save the city money by rendering unnecessary the thousands of demotions which would otherwise need to be performed, and it might also attract young people with an independent, “homesteading” mindset. One woman who visited a “repair café” to fix her cheap floor lamp said she felt a new sense of ownership after fixing it. Should the same not apply to a home?

Neither is the one dollar house unprecedented. Such a program was tried in Baltimore, to revive blighted rowhouse neighborhoods in the 1970s.  It was successful, as were later “homesteading” programs, which reversed the growth of urban blight. (To avoid the prospect of one person living alone on a city block, not unseen in Detroit, the city could reserve homes on a block until the block is filled, and then allow residents to move in.)

With record numbers of young people too poor to move out and begin their lives, and thousands waitlisted for public housing, it’s not hard to imagine people repopulating this fading city, not unlike the pioneers who moved to the West to realize new opportunities. But what about jobs? Jobs may follow redevelopment. And what’s more, so many are already unemployed that jobs may not even be a prerequisite for the success of the one dollar program. 

But perhaps the question misses the entire point. Managing an urban farm is as much as job as working a cash register, and if it is not any more “fun” it is certainly more socially beneficial. And if Detroit new “resilience city,” urban farms are just the beginning.

The really frightening thought about Detroit is that it will turn out to have been the canary in the coal mine, merely the earliest instance of society-wide collapse of the 20th century industrial society. But another future is possible: just as Detroit led us into the age of the suburb, the single-family home, and the private automobile – a future which seemed so fitting and proper at the time – Detroit’s very decline may allow it to become the leader in the new kind of economy which we now urgently need to build.