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The Real Implications of Detroit's $500 Houses

GOOD Magazine

Perhaps you’ve heard of the mythical $500 Detroit house. Plagued by years of blight, desolation, and grim economic deterioration, the story goes, Motor City homes have become nearly worthless—poverty porn for coastal snobs, or fodder for urban yuppie real estate fixer-upper fantasies. One could see how this kind of deal might seem pretty enviable from cramped quarters in San Francisco or Brooklyn, but it’s important to understand what a price tag that low symbolizes.

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  • Liam Henry Bildsten

    Or, maybe you could think of it in terms of Detroit property becoming so 'worthless' that it would merit the kind of radical transformation to large swaths of the city that it is needed. Detroit can be a great city, but it has to be smaller. Much of Detroit's land needs to find new purposes: New-Urbanist-style suburban development, park space, urban farming, etc. It takes a lot in this country to merit big changes that people need (it took a Great Depression to merit the establishment of Social Security and better labor and banking regulations, for example.)

    • Liam Henry Bildsten

      In fact, if you look at England, many cities have green belts of preserved forested land surrounding cities. What if Detroit developed such a belt that would enhance the value of the city of Detroit?

      • Jelena Woehr

        You might like the organization "Tree People" on GOOD: http://www.good.is/members/treepeople

        They talk about seeing "urban forests" everywhere and maintaining the health of a city's tree canopy just as actively as we now try to maintain other aspects of a city like the water table and the air quality. The theory is that people are healthier, happier, and safer with healthy trees, so the natural resource deserves active maintenance and protection.

        Interesting thoughts! There's definitely an urban agriculture movement in Detroit -- but so far it seems to bring some degree of gentrification as well, which is a concern. Hopefully local ownership and management will become a central trait of these emerging reclamatory industries and spaces.

  • Connie Sweet

    It comes down to creative thinking. Buy two houses for $1000, get a large lot and build a new home or multi family dwelling and enjoy park like settings in the midst of big city living. Or look for a home for say $8000 that isn't a tear down but is in a neighborhood with renewed energy and life and throw some money at it to make it shine and increase in value. Homeownership is not for everyone but neither is throwing large monthly rents away each month. Many current investors in these homes in Detroit love that not everyone wants to buy - they rent the homes they have purchased and renovated to the new arrivals. Either way Detroit is thriving with renewed energy - it is GOOD news but not for the weak at heart looking for a cheap and easy way out. That has never been the climate Detroit has maintained. Detroit vs Everyone and Detroit is making a comeback - maybe with less homes but a more powerful infrastructure and large corporations committed to invest in it's return.

  • renee.morgan.1238

    Good idea, actually. If you can't fix the house, replace it and it may be cheaper in the long run. I was a resident in a house for a $1 neighborhood revitalization program in Paducah, KY. It was, and still is, a successful neighborhood project. We had a lot more than just cheap housing stock and land, however. We had a full strategy that included every city department on board and engaged in working on inspections issues, crime, infrastructure like sidewalks and lighting, and a planning department that understood design and the inherent value of the neighborhood which was a historic district. We also had a marketing plan and a designated section if the city to target of only 25 square blocks. Yes, the homes cost more than a $1 to repair and new construction prices were the same as in a nice, well established neighborhood. Many people did move from larger cities for the chance to own a home. Banking conditions were VERY different pre 2008 when we got in. Detroit is trying. I applaud them for that. They will need some tweaks and maybe major shifts in the plan, but hey, that's good design. If this is their first iteration, I say, way to go and don't stop until you hit on what brings the market to you.

    • Jelena Woehr

      I'd love to read more about your experience! Do you have any photos of your $1 house?

      • renee.morgan.1238

        I do. My house was bought from a private resident and was not just $1. However my neighbor did get his for a $1.

        • Jelena Woehr

          Oh my gosh! Your house is dream-worthy. And that before and after of your neighbor's dollar home is incredible. Did he do the work himself, or mostly contract it out? It must feel so good to be part of that kind of transformation of both a home and a neighborhood.

  • Dave Lovejoy

    I don't understand why I'm reading this on Good. Is this story not being told elsewhere? Good is a haven of rest from the constant economic failure stories in the news.

  • dekarim

    But its still interesting. House for $500 and every one can buy it.

  • Tom Maybrier

    This piece makes me wonder, is it time to re-think the "American dream" of home ownership for all?

    Renting can be expensive, but how many people are lured by the low price tag of a house that needs significant upkeep only to end up worse off financially than if they'd just remained renters?