Less than zero: Lots of Detroit properties worth even less than $1 asking price

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You might blame the fact that houses in Detroit's drug war-torn neighborhoods are going for $1 (plus closing costs and thousands in back taxes) on the foreclosure crisis, but the reality is grimmer and probably more permanent.

Although the Detroit News featured the $1 sales on its front page, these kinds of giveaways have been common in East Coast cities for the last 30 or 40 years as a way to unload property with no market value in their current condition.

I took one of them 30 years ago from the city of Wilmington, Del., in return for agreeing to fix it up and live in it for three years. My oldest son's first word was "Ralph," the name of the plumbing and heating contractor who spent more time than his father at our perpetually under-construction home.

But at the end of those three years worth of dust and sweat, we sold the place and cleared $25,000.

I doubt that a property giveaway in Detroit would have such a happy ending these days.
I wrote a story six years ago for the online magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation on a neighborhood near the one featured in the Detroit News. Houses in both areas are similar -- a basically attractive mix of early 20th-century homes, including Dutch colonials, Tudor revivals, and Arts and Crafts bungalows. At the time, rapper Eminem wanted to burn down a few of them for his movie, "8 Mile." Nobody protested much because nobody cared.

Since then unemployment and foreclosures have made things worse. Over the last 40 years, Detroit has gone from having the highest rate of home ownership in the country to having the highest rate of home foreclosures. The unemployment rate is at least 10% and the high-school graduation rate is less than 20% Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick is facing felony charges for lying about a variety of his sins and was in jail last week.

Not the sort of city likely to attract even the most committed urban pioneers.

They filmed "RoboCop" in Detroit 10 years after the racial riots destroyed big sections of the city in the 1960s. No set designers were required.

Earlier in this decade, it seemed like things were improving. But the decline in auto industry-related jobs have hit city residents hardest. These days, copper pipes are worth more than the foreclosed and abandoned properties.
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