Mapping Detroit: New tool aims to identify property speculation in the Motor City

5/9/2016

Property Praxis website Property Praxis, a new online mapping tool, aims to identify property speculation and show how speculative property ownership is actively shaping the conditions of Detroit neighborhoods.

When Joshua Akers read a column last spring about a well-known businessman driving a columnist around to his Detroit properties to prove he wasn’t contributing to the city’s blight, something didn’t add up.

“If someone is chauffeuring you around to different properties—a handful out of several hundred—they’re going to make sure they’ve mowed the lawn, picked up the trash,” said Akers, a geographer and assistant professor in social sciences at University of Michigan-Dearborn. “I wanted a way to show more properties and, in some cases, to figure out who these people were who were buying them.”

Akers and his colleagues Alex Hill, information designer, and Aaron Petcoff, web developer, created Property Praxis, an online mapping tool to identify property speculation in Detroit.

They found that speculators own nearly 20 percent of all land parcels in Detroit.

“All speculation isn’t necessarily destructive,” Akers said. “But many types of speculation that we’re seeing affect the city’s neighborhoods are detrimental. Not only does the condition of the property decline over time, but the property is essentially extracted from the community—it’s owned now simply for its exchange value.”

Akers said the intent of the site is to show how speculative property ownership is actively shaping the conditions of Detroit neighborhoods. It builds on his previous work on property markets in Detroit.

“People often think of Detroit’s decline as a passive process; they’ll use suburbanization and deindustrialization to explain it. And those have had a very real impact on Detroit,” Akers said. “But what we’re seeing today is a very active process of people buying, selling, exchanging and holding properties to give us the landscape we have today.”

The site shows speculator-owned properties within the city, with the group defining speculation as having one of four properties:

  • Ownership of three or more parcels in an area in which the owner does not have a taxable address;
  • Ownership of a large number of parcels in varying conditions and disuse;
  • Single vacant or abandoned property held by an owner with an out-of-state or international address; or
  • Residential property that serves as a taxable address for multiple owners with three or more holdings in the city.

Each listing includes names of owners listed by the City of Detroit Assessor’s Office, and owner or member names of Limited Liability Companies (LLCs). And users can search properties by owner name, address or ZIP code.

Most listings also include images provided by Google Street View. Future versions of the site will provide images of the properties over multiple years to show how they have changed over time.

Akers has heard from community leaders who want to contact property owners but don’t know how to locate them. He believes that by providing property information in an easily accessible format, residents will be better equipped to start conversations about everything from purchasing properties to fighting those who are blighting neighborhoods.

“It takes a lot of time and research to figure out who these people are. So what this project does is provides at least a snapshot of properties at a certain point in time. It’s a start,” Akers said. “We hope the information allows community groups, activists and individuals to take an even more direct role in shaping the places they live.”