Meet Detroit's unlikeliest home wrecker

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Yahoo News
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Bill Pulte, a scion of the family that created PulteGroup Inc., stands for a photograph in one of the 10 blocks the nonprofit Detroit Blight Authority program has cleaned in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Friday, May 24, 2013. Pulte says the only way to truly save Detroit and get the housing market functioning properly again is to destroy large swaths of the city as quickly as possible. (Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

DETROIT — Bill Pulte’s grandfather was just 18 when he built his first home here in the summer of 1950 on the city’s east side — a five-room bungalow with a fireplace that sold for $10,000 even before it was completed.

Within a decade, William Pulte had built his first subdivision in what was then a booming Motor City metropolis and was considered a pioneer of mass production home-building. His business, the PulteGroup, quickly expanded nationally and has since become one of the country’s top residential development companies, building nearly 1 million homes in 28 states.

While William Pulte left his namesake company four years ago, the family name remains synonymous with building houses in Detroit. So it took many by surprise when Bill Pulte, the housing icon’s 25-year-old grandson, began pitching a plan more than a year ago to city officials that seemed counterintuitive to everything that had made his family famous.

Instead of building homes, Pulte wanted to use his family’s institutional knowledge to tear them down — specifically the tens of thousands of abandoned houses that have scarred Detroit’s landscape for years. He argued that just as his family and other home builders had learned how to quickly build homes, the same rules could be applied in opposite to rid neighborhoods of blight at a faster pace.

“It’s very ironic, I know, given my family,” Pulte admitted. “But what’s interesting is that the same principles that made a company and an industry great can also make a city great again. It’s all about reverse engineering.”

Pulte, who grew up in Florida but spent a few summers in Michigan working for the family business, came up with the idea two years ago. He had read an article in the Detroit News about an 18-year-old girl who was scared of being raped during her walk to school because her neighborhood was full of abandoned buildings that harbored potential predators.

“I thought, ‘Why should someone have to live like that?’” Pulte recalled.

But it was a problem Detroit had been dealing with for decades — and had become even more out of control as the city slid into bankruptcy.

Hit hard by economic swings, soaring crime rates and chronic municipal dysfunction, Detroit had seen its population drop dramatically — going from just over 1.8 million during the industrial boom of the 1950s to less than half that in 2000, according to U.S. census data. And over the next decade — as the city struggled through the collapse of the auto industry and the foreclosure crisis — Detroit’s population dramatically dropped again, to just over 700,000 people. It was a 25 percent drop — one of the largest percentage population losses in history for a major American city.

Left behind in that exodus were tens of thousands of homes and other buildings that no longer had people to fill them. Last summer, the city estimated there were more than 78,000 abandoned structures throughout Detroit’s 139 square miles. But city officials concede they really don’t know the exact level of blight in Detroit. It permeates the city — and continues to spread.

“Perhaps no issue is as fundamental to — or emblematic of — Detroit's decline as urban blight,” Kevyn Orr, the state-appointed emergency manager charged with leading the city through bankruptcy, said last year.

Over the years, Detroit officials had tried to tackle its urban decay problem — demolishing a house here and another there in various parts of the city before it ran out of money. But Pulte saw that as a futile effort that only wasted taxpayer dollars.

“The only way to really get rid of blight is to tackle it on a mass scale,” he said. “The idea of taking one home here and the other 20 miles away makes absolutely no sense. You have to go community by community, block by block. That’s the only way to really have an impact.”

City officials were initially skeptical of Pulte’s idea — and they weren’t the only ones. He had first pitched his grandfather two years ago on the idea of doing something about Detroit’s epidemic of empty buildings. The elder Pulte advised his grandson that he shouldn’t touch the issue “with a 10-foot pole.” He thought the problem was too big and too fraught with controversy in a city that already had major problems.

But Pulte ultimately forged ahead. He moved to Detroit and, with his grandfather’s support, created the Detroit Blight Authority, a nonprofit group funded by private money —including a $100,000 contribution from the Pulte family. He’s since raised just over $1 million to get rid of vacant buildings and is looking to raise more.

Knocking down a house in Detroit isn’t easy — or cheap. Demolition of an individual house can cost upwards of $10,000, including the expense of hiring various contractors and getting city permits. But Pulte says his demolitions cost about half that much — in part because he brings in specialized labor and equipment to take down several houses at once and remove the debris.

The DBA’s first project — in Detroit’s Eastern Market area—cost just $200,000. His workers took down 10 city blocks of abandoned buildings — including several homes and two vacant churches that had been magnets for robberies and drug activity. The removal took just 10 days.

He turned next to Brightmoor, a troubled neighborhood on Detroit’s west side that had been overtaken by blocks of abandoned homes. The area had one of the highest crime rates in the city — including rapes, drug deals and arsons. People from all over the city had come to treat its desolate streets like a dumping ground, blatantly disposing of tires and old furniture — making some streets totally impassable.

“It looked like the badlands,” said Kirk Mayes, executive director of the Brightmoor Alliance, a group working to improve the neighborhood. “People were scared to go outside. They didn’t feel good about their community. Residents were trying to be positive and upbeat, but it was hard when you were dealing with blight like this.”

With the support of the city and its residents, Pulte’s group cleared 14 blocks of decay in Brightmoor last summer, including 500 separate lots with more than 70 vacant homes. They removed more than 300,000 pounds of dead trees and trash, a dozen boats and more than 300 tires. They even found a body — a 22-year-old woman who had been killed and dumped near one vacant home. The case is still unsolved.

“It was unbelievable,” Pulte said.

The cleanup, which cost $500,000, opened up a wide swath of land in Brightmoor and completely changed the makeup of the neighborhood. While it’s empty, the area feels safer than it did and has energized a community that had long felt ignored by the city. “It’s a different place,” Mayes said. “Things are getting better.”

But Pulte is not done.

Last month, his group announced plans to tackle another 35 blocks of abandoned buildings and lots in Brightmoor this year, its biggest project yet. The price tag is nearly $1 million — funded in part by grants from several foundations and private individuals. Among the donors is Quicken CEO Dan Gilbert, a Detroit booster involved in an effort to catalog all of the city’s vacant structures in order to help secure state and federal funding for cleaning up the city.

Pulte views this latest project as yet another way to show how blight removal can be more efficient — in spite of what he calls “blightocracy,” a word he uses to describe the enormous amount of red tape he says makes it hard for groups like his to demolish empty structures.

Local officials appear to be listening to Pulte’s concerns. A new blight task force comprised of city and state officials and funded in part by a $53 million grant from the Obama administration is making recommendations to the city about how to make demolitions easier.

At the same time, Orr has suggested the city should spend roughly $500 million on blight removal — though that number would have to be approved by the federal judge overseeing the city’s finances. Orr has suggested the city should work with Pulte’s group.

While Pulte is hopeful about the steps that have been taken toward cleaning up Detroit, he says time is running out.

“The city of Detroit is in a really unique position, but I think we only have about one more year to really get it right,” Pulte said. “We have been sprung in the national spotlight with this bankruptcy, and if we don’t make very quick corrective action on some of these issues, namely blight, we are going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Pulte, whose day job is running a venture capital firm in the same building where his grandfather once had offices for his housing company, says his goal is to help renew a city that played such an important role in building his family and its business.

“I want to show the outside world that we are serious about bringing back Detroit,” Pulte said.

And to revive the city, the grandson of Detroit’s first great homebuilder has set a personal goal of demolishing houses all over this city this year.

“Hundreds of them,” he hopes.