Plumbing the depths of despair in Detroit

Home wreckers are having a field day in some states, write Jeff Green, Terrence Dopp and Frank Bass.

Home wreckers are having a field day in some states, write Jeff Green, Terrence Dopp and Frank Bass.

Bill Heaney gets about two calls a day from people who bought foreclosed, vacant Detroit homes that lack basic plumbing - victims of thieves who strip pipes, water heaters and toilets.

"All the pipes will be gone," said Heaney, 70, who has run Heaney Plumbing & Heating in Detroit for more than four decades. "It's really gotten bad, probably the last four years, and we've been getting a lot of calls. The furnaces, the water heaters and all the pipes, even the sinks - gone."

Amid the worst recession since the Great Depression, pilfering cut the number of US homes with complete plumbing by about 10.4 per cent from 2008 to 2011, according to census data.

That reversed a five-decade trend. The decay of housing adds another obstacle to recovery in Rust Belt cities already beset by crime and poverty.

Detroit leads US cities in homes that the Census Bureau says lack basic plumbing. The agency found similar devolution in Flint, Michigan, Cleveland and Dayton in Ohio, and Buffalo, New York.

"It's a vicious circle," said John George, who has run the non-profit Motor City Blight Busters in Detroit for a quarter of a century, trying to rehabilitate crumbling neighbourhoods. "Blight is like a cancer. If you don't nip it in the bud, it spreads. Before you know it, you look up, the whole street is gone."

It's a problem that has grown as the city, which has a $US326 million deficit and faces the possible appointment of a state emergency manager, has emptied.

Detroit, which peaked at 1.85 million residents in 1950, has lost a quarter of its residents since 2000. It fell to 714,000 people in the 2010 census.

Wayne County, which encompasses Detroit, last year put a record 21,350 tax-delinquent properties up for sale and sold 12,333. Another 22,000 may go on sale this year.

When an intact three-bedroom house in Detroit can sell for $US10,000, homes stripped of plumbing, wiring and other parts quickly become valueless, George said.

"You've done almost irreversible damage," he said. "You can fix anything, but the reality is, when is enough enough?"

The problem is distinctly urban and insidious, said Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"When a unit becomes vacant in large parts of Detroit, Cleveland, Camden, you name it, it gets stripped," he said. "Where you have these roving stripping gangs, as well as vandalism, the houses will go pretty fast."

To qualify as having full plumbing, a house must have hot and cold running water, a flushing toilet, a bathtub or shower, and a sink with a tap, according to census criteria. Almost 3 million homes in the US, about 2.2 per cent of the total, lacked plumbing in 2011, according to the census figures.

The backsliding goes against the long-term trend. Forty-five per cent of all US housing lacked complete plumbing in 1940. By 1990, the number was just 1.1 per cent. But from 2008 to 2011, the number of fully plumbed homes declined in all 50 states, the data showed.

The US county with the highest percentage is the Yukon-Koyukuk census area of Alaska, with 62 per cent. Slightly more than 13 per cent of Alaska's housing lacked complete plumbing in 2011, mostly because cold weather and sparse population make it difficult to build water and sewer systems.

In industrial cities, the reasons are human. Metal strippers in Camden are so brazen that Juan Delgado, the owner of Ralf's Plumbing & Heating, says he won't install pipes above ground without warning a homeowner.

"I will sell you copper lines, but more likely I will take pictures, and I want it inspected the same day because the great chances are that tomorrow it won't be here," said Delgado, 55, a plumbing contractor.

His niece recently paid $US240 to have a water meter installed on a property she bought. "The next day she went to keep working on the house, and the water meter was gone," he said. "How much did they get for that water meter? Five bucks. Seven bucks, if that."

The wholesale thievery happened as scrap metal's value rose. Copper prices climbed to a peak of $US4.62 a pound on the London Metal Exchange in February 2011 before ending that year down 21 per cent. An average single-family home uses about 200 kilograms of copper.

New Jersey Assembly member Angel Fuentes, who said his own home in Camden was broken into by pipe scavengers about seven years ago, has introduced legislation prohibiting scrap dealers from paying in cash and requiring them to register with police. "It's getting too out of control," Fuentes said.

In one recent case, thieves stole copper pipes from a church basement that were probably worth $US100. The damage to the church exceeded $US1200, he said.

The metal in a typical urban home is worth about $US1000 to $US1500, a fraction of the cost to repair the damage. Thieves smash the toilets for brass fittings and window frames for metal counterweights.

For now, there's no sign that the situation is going to improve, said George, of Blight Busters. His group is in the midst of taking down two city blocks of dilapidated homes to make way for an urban farm that George says he's hoping will help stabilise the area.

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