Detroit and the Myth of the $100 House
America’s Rust Belt is a swath of cities and towns that boomed during the Industrial Era and now lie—well, rusting—as empty remainders of glory days past.
Chief among these is Detroit, Motor City. The longtime center of American automotive manufacturing was gutted when the Big Three car companies simultaneously failed.
Detroit, already plagued by corruption and crime, saw its unemployment rate skyrocket in 2009.
What’s left behind when an economy collapses? Cheap real estate, that’s what.
I’d read a New York Times article about some forward-thinking artist-types who bought a house in Detroit for $1,900. $1,900! Some of us (and lots of New Yorkers) pay that much in rent every month!
In fact, the article went on, soon a nearby house went on the market for $100. The artist types notified their buddies, who moved in post haste.
I was intrigued. Really? A $100 house? Even if it was a real fixer-upper, even if you really were better off tearing it down than living in it, that’d still be a hell of a deal. Why, out in New Mexico, where you can still buy unincorporated land with no water or roads, you’d pay at least $1,000 for a house-sized plot of dust. So how can you buy an actual home for $100? That’s literally cheaper than dirt.
The possibilities of this were fascinating. I had visions of hipsters from coast to coast converging in Detroit, building a new city on rock&roll. I pictured young artists owning homes, fixing up neighborhoods. I saw community gardens, art parks, a grassroots transformation of a city. We could take that oil-stained soil and those rusted factories, and create something new and beautiful. With houses going for $100, I thought, what would you have to lose by moving to Detroit?
And so Quiet Earp and I did some research, and came up with a list of houses selling for under a grand. We had plenty to choose from: there were more cheap houses than we would have time to visit. We picked two neighborhoods to cruise, and dove in.
But once we entered Detroit, the truth hit fast: this is a modern American ghost town. The place is practically deserted. Its streets, built wide to accommodate heavy traffic, are mostly empty. Houses and businesses are boarded up, painted up, bombed out and falling down. Even in the center of the business district, there’s no traffic and hardly any people.
Don’t believe me? I videotaped it:http://www.vimeo.com/6608344
It got worse as we drove into residential areas, looking for those cheap houses. In fact, I’ve never felt so out of place in all my life. Even in Chicago’s South Side, where we counted five white people in an hour, I felt fine just driving around; not so in Detroit. Truthfully, it wasn’t about race: it was about being naive. It was about driving down streets where we truly did not belong and were not welcome.
Detroit is a ghost town, and it’s inhabited by ghosts: the only people left here are those who can’t or won’t leave. They live in deserted neighborhoods, in houses with collapsed front steps and missing windows. They sit on the porch and watch the cars go by, watch the deals go down, watch their neighborhoods crumble. And we, driving through slowly and reading house numbers in a late-model Honda, stuck out like a couple of thumbs.
So we sped up, and went straight to the houses. Sometimes we stopped to take a photo, but mostly we didn’t. Earp and I have each lived happily in the wilds of West Oakland, but the danger I felt in Detroit was like nothing I’d experienced before. I was actually afraid for my life.
The New York Times correspondent wrote that his friend Mitch’s $1,900 home “had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring… But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.”
As for the $100 house? It “needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced.”
Well, I don’t know what part of Detroit these folks live in, but the $100 houses I saw looked more like this:
You see, abandoned houses in this town get set on fire. No exceptions. Wherever we went in those neighborhoods, one in four houses had been torched. On one corner, we saw a giant banner hung across a charred front porch. We didn’t slow down to take a photo, but I’ll paraphrase: DON’T BURN HOUSES DOWN! DETROIT POLICE ARE WATCHING YOU!
Except that they obviously aren’t. People who live in this part of town are on their own. And although I and many others would love to own even a fire-scarred, condemned building, the fact is that we wouldn’t last a week here. Buy a $100 house in Detroit, and you get a lifetime supply of sleepless nights: you’ll spend the next several years waiting for burglars and arsonists, murderers and crackheads to break in the windows.
It’s like the Wild West without the scenery, the gold, and the hope. It’s the Rust Belt.
Ultimately, I do believe that change will come to Detroit. There will be a green movement here; in fact it’s already being cultivated by forward-thinking groups and intrepid locals. One day, this place will be reborn.
But right now, the NYT’s story reeks of Shinola.
Truth is, any artist-type who moves into this part of Detroit is probably pretty handy with a pistol or a shotgun. Anyone who takes this plunge is risking their life every day, betting on a future that may take a long time to arrive.
Long story short: Yes, you can buy a house in Detroit for $100. And you will get what you pay for.