One of the most interesting things I heard at the conference yesterday was about the inverse of my obsession with densifying high-cost urban areas — the process of suburbanizing cheap land areas of Detroit. It makes sense. You own a house on a small plot on a block with many vacant and worthless properties, so you buy up adjacent plots and now you have a nice suburban-sized lawn. But there’s a problem (PDF):
Though the New Suburbanism is happening all over Detroit, because the city has no mechanism for facilitating the transfer of vacant, city-owned land to private ownership, accumulating vacant lots can be exceedingly difficult. Individuals wishing to purchase tax-foreclosed vacant land invariably experience frustration at each stage of the process, from the identification of the lot’s ownership (the City maintains no comprehensive database of the properties it owns), through the receipt of the title deed: a “quit-claim deed” that offers no guarantee that the title is not clouded with liens, utility bills and the like.
This seems totally insane, and it drives home the extent to which Detroit’s problems are caused or exacerbating by totally dysfunctional municipal government. For all that its population has fallen, Detroit is still home to hundreds or thousands of people and the vast majority of the land should be worth some non-zero quantity to some of those people. But the city needs to keep track of what land it owes, and create a process for people to buy it.