DETROIT — The war on vacant houses in Detroit took on new force Tuesday as officials announced plans to demolish about 450 of the most dangerous structures within the next two months, and immediately tore into the first home on the list.
Crews collapsed the chimney of a two-story bungalow in northwest Detroit in a ceremonial start to the $4.5 million project backed by Wayne County and faith-based groups. It's the latest step in an aggressive effort to rid the city of thousands of vacant homes.
"It's part of the rebirth we are going through," County Executive Robert Ficano said, surrounded by other local officials and a dozen religious leaders. "These are havens for drugs and other things."
Detroit's mayor wants to tear down 10,000 vacant houses over the next four years and, with them, evict the illegal drug and weapons operations that often move in after residents move out.
The house targeted Tuesday is among several dilapidated structures along a street dotted with vacant, weedy lots, and demolition work is expected to resume later this week. The county's project is funded through federal stimulus money.
"We can't create new things unless the old has gone away," said the Rev. Edgar Vann, pastor of Second Ebenezer Church. "It's a real victory for the community. Now, we see a real opportunity here and leadership."
Work was scheduled to continue later this week at the first home, and organizers hope to level the last house on their list within 45 days.
There are about 33,000 vacant houses spread across Detroit, while another 50,000 homes are in foreclosure, Mayor Dave Bing has said.
Bing is already using $20 million in federal stimulus funds to tear down about 6,000 vacant homes over the next two years, and he hopes to demolish 10,000 within the next four years if funding can be found.
About 660 have been torn down since January, compared to 860 that were demolished in all of 2009. The 450 houses targeted by Wayne County are among 3,000 on Bing's demolition list this year.
Detroit religious leaders were asked to compile a list of abandoned houses near their churches, said the Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers, pastor of Greater New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church.
"Most of our churches are in target areas where there is blight," Flowers said.
By removing the abandoned houses, it shows Detroit is not dead, he added.
"We are alive with hope, vigor and vitality," Flowers said. "We are going to move our community forward. We do have a vision."
Vacant houses have been a nuisance to communities and police for years in Detroit, but two recent events increased the calls to have them torn down.
A Detroit police officer was fatally shot May 3 and four others were wounded while investigating a reported break-in and gunfire at a vacant duplex on Detroit's northeast side.
Less than 12 hours later, officers found an assault rifle – loaded with armor-piercing bullets – in an empty house on the other side of town. Two shotguns and a semiautomatic handgun also were found.
The number of abandoned and foreclosed homes has risen as Detroit's population plummeted. The 139-square-mile city was built for two million people, but could dip below 800,000 when 2010 Census numbers are collected.