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Ghost Town

November 10th, 2009 by Mike N · 14 Comments · Politics

In Monday’s 11/09/09 Detroit Free Press is a typical but unflattering to Detroit article by writer Mark W. Smith which demonstrates the lack of understanding by Detroit’s leaders of the concept of property rights and particularly what property rights are for.

The article focuses on a WSJ article about an old truck that was pushed off the fourth floor of the long abandoned Packard building by people referred to as “urban explorers.” It even has a video of the event and a link the the WSJ article.

Reading this story is like watching insects crawling through the skeletal remains of what was once a living, thriving organism, the City of Detroit. According to the WSJ article:

“Detroit has 80,000 abandoned lots and buildings, according to the city’s planning department. Old housing projects, homes, strip malls and even high-rise buildings sit empty across much of the city. Motown has more vacant office, retail and industrial space than nearly every other big city in the country.”

But the Packard plant is just the latest example of Detroit’s political leaders not understanding the nature and purpose of property rights.

The purpose of property rights is to transform the ideal of individual rights, the ‘right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ into practical reality. To survive, a man must have the right to use and dispose of the fruits of his labor as he judges best while respecting the same rights of others. The fruits of his labor are his property. Without property rights there can be no other rights.

Where there are no humans there is no property, only nature. Where there are humans, property rights identify, define and protect the fruits of each man’s labor. The basic, fundamental purpose of property rights then is to serve human survival in some objective way. That is why there should be a time limit on how long an owner can let a property sit completely idle not serving any purpose whatsoever.

The details of what kind of limits should be placed on what kind of property are not important here and can be worked out by those schooled in property rights law. What’s important here, and needs to be recognized by our laws, is the principle that property must serve some human purpose and cannot be held idle in perpetuity.

The future of Detroit can be either the nation’s biggest ghost town or a thriving metropolis again. But Detroit’s rebirth will not happen until Detroit and Lansing discover the real nature of property rights and enact policy accordingly. Right now all governments view property as a source of income instead of a source of human survival. That is what really has to change.

14 Comments so far ↓

  • Amlan Gupta

    This is an interesting post that raises some intriguing questions. Particularly, who will be the judge to say that a particular property is “idle” and no longer “serving some human purpose”?

    What if someone wants to buy land and do absolutely nothing with it i.e. leave it completely undeveloped? Does the person who paid value for that land not have the right to do what he/she wants with it, even if it means sitting completely idle. If another person wishes to do something different, let them offer enough money to the owner so that want to voluntarily sell the land.

  • Grant

    Thanks for posting this. As someone who has never been to Detroit – but has heard all of the horror stories – I had just assumed that the reason for the city’s demise was one, the death of the automobile industry in particular, and two, the “white flight” that has afflicted so many Midwestern cities. I had no idea that Detroit’s city government had such arcane ideas about property rights. That, as much as any other reason, is certainly one of the factors for why that city has acquired such a particularly bad reputation.

  • Jim May

    What would be the term for property deemed abandoned?


    I actively distrust the notion of constraining property rights by reference to purpose. I should not have to justify leaving a property unused.

    I think the solution is simply a proper approach to nuisance law (see “Coming to the Nuisance”). In the same manner that certain uses of a property may interfere with use of neighboring property by its owners, unused property can be considered a nuisance, and legal action brought against the owner.

    If an owner cannot be located, by certain specific procedures, than the neighbors or the city should be considered free to remedy the immediate problem (e.g. cut the grass, tear down old buildings). After some length of time in the absence of asserted ownership, the property reverts to stewardship and is auctioned off.

    This idea of “asserting ownership” in order to retain it exists in law today, but has been abused by many states, particularly California. In one example I know of, there is a road, open to the public, that passes through a certain parcel of private land. The law requires that the owners of the property close off this road at least one day per year, to retain ownership of the land under the road — if this condition is not met, the state automatically takes permanent possession of it, cleaving the parcel in two.

  • Mike N

    Myrhaf: thanks for that link. In that article is this: “Detroit was once home to nearly 2 million people but has shrunk to a population of perhaps less than 900,000. It is estimated that a city the size of San Francisco could fit neatly within its empty lots. As nature abhors a vacuum, wildlife has moved in.” The problems of Detroit are many and how the city got this bad is a subject for another day.

    My point is that property should not be held idle indefinitely. The Packard plant-3.5 million square feet-has been idle for over 10 years. The old train depot-1/2 million sq. ft.-for over 20 years. Others longer. This should not be. If property is a value then the question is of value to whom and for what purpose? Shouldn’t that apply to land property as any other? I don’t have a problem with someone buying land and doing nothing with it now if there is an anticipated future use.

    I think the concept of “asserting ownership” could be a good idea. Some kind of property recievership could be another. But these are details that I don’t think are important now.

    Perhaps the price of a property or the price of insuring it should include the cost of future demolition. Just a thought.

  • Lionell Griffith

    “My point is that property should not be held idle indefinitely.”

    By what principle do you hold this is true?

    Simply because you WANT it to be used for a “better” purpose? A purpose YOU want served and not the actual owner’s purpose?

    It is NOT your property and therefore you have no right to take it under any pretense. Especially not having the collective take it by fiction of the government having the authority to decide the proper purpose for which property must be used.

    If by not using your property, you lose the right to it, it was not yours in the first place. A right is a right in perpetuity no matter what you or anyone else wants, needs, wishes, demands or it is not a right.

  • Mike

    Jim May:

    That’s essentially it; what you are referring to is known in property law as the concept of adverse possession. Basically, a person can gain possession of property by using it openly, continuously for some long period of time that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and in a manner hostile to the rights of the property owner (i.e. without permission). All the owner has to do to reset the clock and kill an adverse possession squat is to show up and order the squatter off the property (presumably documenting this event in order to secure proof). At the core of property rights is the right to exclude. Once asserted, that property is considered to have been used in its totality, even if only for an instant, and no claim of adverse possession can survive against proof of use in totality by a rightful owner.

    The concept of adverse possession has never sat well with me, even though it has a legitimate purpose of securing present title against antiquated claims, and a secondary legitimate by-product of reinforcing estoppel and unjust enrichment claims where property boundaries may be in dispute. The very idea that something I own is subject to being legally taken from me, title and possession, because I am not sufficiently attentive toward it, really sticks in my craw. I am a busy fellow. I will use my possessions when I get around to it. If I didn’t want to own it, I wouldn’t have bought it. And so on.

    I would be curious indeed to see an Objectivist analysis synthesizing this concept with property law. I would do it myself, but my legal knowledge is pretty rudimentary with regard to real property. If we were talking about administrative law, I’d be your huckleberry.

  • Lionell Griffith

    Objectivism defines what rights are and that law must uphold those rights justly. It has nothing else to say about the content of law. However, here is my take on the topic.

    Rights are a moral concept that sets the bounds of action among people in society. Rights adhere to the individual and are inseparable from him. They are the holding of claims to free action not to be hindered by each and every other member of society. Said boundary of action applies to all.

    Since both property and its owner exist in time and space, a right to property is the claim of unhindered use of said property. Since no two entities can occupy the SAME space at the SAME time, the property is held exclusively for the purposes of the owner. That is until such time as the owner has voluntarily transferred ownership to another.

    Adverse possession is NOT voluntary and thus said possessor is violating your right of possession in the form of trespass. It is the function of the “legal system” to define trespass and its terms of prosecution. It is NOT the function of the “legal system” to define it away. Unfortunately THAT is exactly what Adverse Possession laws are. Simply because you might not know your property is being used without your permission and fail to act to exclude the abuser, you loose your rights to your property and the abuser gains right of possession. Your right to your property has been defined into non-existence.

    I suspect such laws are confounded with the proper taking of ownership of unowned property as in homestead. If the property is truly unowned it is free to be used by one and all. To take ownership by homestead, one must publicly register a claim to the property, identify the bounds of the property, and take timely action to improve the productive use of that property. If, after a legally defined period of time you have done so, you assume the full right of ownership and take full title to the property. If you fail to improve or fail to be sufficiently persistent in your improvement, you have legally abandoned your claim. In which case another can claim the property and work to satisfy the improvement requirement.

    On the surface, this second case may seem the quite similar to the first. There is one very important difference. In the first case, the property is OWNED and the squatter is violating the rights of the owner. In the second case, the homesteader does not own the property and has failed to perform the work required of the ownership process.

    Once the homesteader has defaulted on that process, he has lost his claim to the right to improve the property to the point of ownership. Another may then quite properly lay claim to the unowned property and work to own it. Clearly, they are two VERY different situations. It is the difference between having paid the full price for the property and simply have taken it for nothing. Stealing is NOT the same as owning.

    Only if reality is not real, and words are nothing but shape shifting approximations of subjective intentions can the two situations be said to be the same. Reality is real and a right is a right in perpetuity no matter what you or anyone else wants, needs, wishes, demands or it is not a right.

  • Embedded I

    WOW, here I only wish to respond to Myrhaf’s discovery of CoonMan! Although The Detroit Free Press reporter is catering to popular “ick” sentiment, he does so only out of fashion.

    In the 1980s I was a Wildlife Research Biologist for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resource’s “Rabies Research Program”. Part of that program involved dropping baits containing sufficient quantities of Tetracycline to embed in the growth lines of the teeth of animals younger than some two years. Though our focus was Foxes, we knew that Coons, Coyotes and Skunks would be similarly exposed.

    Any animal that consumed the bait revealed a distinct fluorescent, DAILY yellow tooth growth line (like the annual rings of a tree). Knowing the date we air dropped the baits, we could tell, working from the date the animal was trapped by local trappers, how long the bait lay idle (in autumn weather) before it was eaten. We learned that the idle time was not so great as to preclude the administration of an oral vaccine against rabies in the feral population of those four species.

    What does this have to do with CoonMan? We retrieved hundreds of skinned Coon carcasses from trappers in South Western Ontario. A sufficient number of Detroit citizens drove to our field center to purchase the coon carcasses, after we had collected our data. Yes, all were of Negroid descent, but all were friendly, and were happy to spend $50 for fifty two pound carcasses. Where does one get perfectly good meat for $1 a pound?

    Note that Glemie Beasely thoroughly cooked the coon flesh. That certainly was the right thing to do, since raccoons often carry an horrific parasitic ‘load’.

    We were careful to distinguish between fresh and ‘ripe’ raccoon carcasses (each one was dated for research reasons). The purchasers were always grateful.

    I suspect that the reporter’s reticence over eating Coon was no more than an appeal to fashion, after all lots of Koreans eat dog. Ontario Indians consider Whitefish to be a filthy bottom feeder, yet in January to May, Whitefish is a wonderful clean and mildly flavorful fish.


    I have to comment on Clemie Beasely’s blues. His vocal variation of “The Thrill is Gone” is of little consequence, but his use of the electric guitar for that song is truly inspiring.

    Once in a while, ‘some guy’ comes out with something unexpected. Clemie may be able to cook raccoon, but his guitar rendition of that song is extraordinarily brilliant — World wide. Listen to it again. It starts in the last 2 min 16 secs of the video.

    Thanks for finding it, Myrhaf!

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  • Bill Brown

    This problem reminds me of this article I’ve been meaning to blog about for far too long.

  • BPG

    Re: US Cities May Have to Be Bulldozed in Order to Survive
    The government is paying people to destroy their cars; the government is destroying the cities. Yes, my friends, the dark ages are upon us.

  • Jae J Davis

    I am a Detroiter, born and bred, and I am a proponent of something being done about the many thousands of buildings that sit idle. In order for revitalization to occur, new legislation has to be in place to start the rebirth. It is unfair to just let a structure sit and decay without any regard for the people who live in the neighborhoods and have to look at your depleting structure. Now that there is a new city council moving into office on January 1st. I am going to make sure that they come up with legislation that will create business growth, and future inhabitants into Detroit. Detroit can be a great city. There are some great people in it, but many will never know the beauty of the people because they cannot get past the ugly of the buildings.

  • Lionell Griffith

    JJ Davis: It is unfair to just let a structure sit and decay without any regard for the people who live in the neighborhoods and have to look at your depleting structure.

    Is it fair to take another person’s property simply because you want or need it?

    Is it fair to tax a property to the point its uneconomic to maintain it or even use it?

    Is it fair to restrict and regulate a property to the point it cannot be used for a sufficiently productive purpose to break even let alone make a profit?

    Why not buy a property, renovate it, and turn it into a good looking and productive property?
    “Ya…but…but….” That would mean YOU would have to take a risk and actually do something and spend YOUR resources. Rather than doing that, you demand that others make the world more to your liking without your having to do a damn thing to make it so.

    There is no such thing as a free lunch. You chose so live with the consequences or do something about it.

    Unless and until the people of Detroit learn they cannot eat the goose (tax the productive to death) and have the eggs (the wealth they produce) it produces, I say let Detroit rot! Ditto for every other failing metropolis in the country.