Lyriq Wilson shut her eyes and clutched the stickers in her hand.
It was mid-October 2019 and a fall chill swirled through the air in Auntie Na’s community health clinic on Detroit’s west side. Outside, children shrieked as they painted pumpkins during the neighborhood’s annual bazaar.
But inside the clinic, the tension was palpable.
“We’re almost done, just one quick poke and it’ll be over,” a Detroit Health Department employee told Lyriq in a soothing voice, as she prepped the machine to prick the 6-year-old’s finger. “See? All done.”
In the background, Sonia Brown, the founder and no-nonsense visionary of the community-centered Auntie Na’s Village, watched, her eyebrows furrowed with worry, as the small group of health department staff huddled to await Lyriq’s lead test results.
Brown was nervous.
She has witnessed this scene play out before with other children in her neighborhood because of a silent threat lurking in the city’s 48204 ZIP code: lead exposure. And she has often wondered whether the city’s aggressive demolition program, which has razed more than 21,000 vacant and blighted structures, has had anything to do with it.
A 2017 Detroit Health Department task force report concluded there was a potential link between the high number of demolitions occurring in the city during the summer months and elevated blood lead levels of children who live near the demolition sites. The city announced in early 2018 that it would halt nonemergency demolitions in five of the most at-risk ZIP codes — 48202, 48204, 48206, 48213 and 48214 — from May through September.
Except it didn't.
A joint Type Investigations and Detroit Free Press investigation found the city approved a large number of nonemergency demolitions in some of the riskiest areas of the city and is now asking voters to approve a quarter-billion-dollar bond referendum to do even more demolitions, despite that record. When city officials approved demolitions, they sometimes appeared not to follow their own rules.
Work crews in those same neighborhoods continued to raze a total of 219 homes during mid-2018 and in mid-2019. Almost half of them were nonemergency demolitions.
“That strikes me as a very high number,” said Nick Schroeck, the director of the University of Detroit Mercy's environmental law clinic, who has followed the demolition program’s environmental issues closely over the years. Schroeck added that the number seems to be unacceptably high “if they really were focused on the health and safety aspect of stopping demolitions to make sure they got it right.”
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said she's troubled by the newspaper's findings, calling the demolitions during the moratorium a “grave injustice” for the community. Tlaib said it reinforces her reasoning for pushing for more oversight over the program, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal support.
“We continue to seem to dismiss the fact that for years we've been told that no amount of lead is safe,” Tlaib said. “This is essentially federally funded pollution. They took federal funds and polluted our communities, our bodies, our air. … The one thing that's very, very clear is the lack of transparency and accountability in these decisions that are being made about land use.”
Since he was first elected in 2013, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has made Detroit’s demolition program the centerpiece of his vision to transform the city by knocking down tens of thousands of blighted houses and buildings. Aggressive implementation of that plan has brought the city more than halfway toward that goal. But the ambitious strategy also has led to several problems, including state and federal safety and corruption probes.
A March 6, 2018, memo written by former Detroit Health Department Director Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said only emergency demolitions for structures that posed an imminent danger would be allowed during the moratorium in those five ZIP codes.
But of the 219 demolitions that occurred in 2018 and 2019, just under half — 48%, or 105 total — were not emergency demolitions, according to a Free Press analysis of completed residential demolitions posted on the city’s website.
City officials, who would respond only in writing to the Free Press’ questions and declined on-the-record interviews, dispute the newspaper’s findings that the city didn’t follow its own moratorium.
“The timeline for an individual demolition process is variable and in a small number of cases the demolition timeline was too far along to delay completion until October,” the city said via email.
When asked why nonemergency demolitions took place during the moratorium period, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office said that the demolitions completed during these months had already been initiated, and the “potential risk of leaving those structures open and exposed for five months” was weighed against the risk to public health of tearing them down.
Guidance from a June 7, 2019, memo to a city councilwoman from then-interim health director Jean Ingersoll pledged that demolitions were to be done with the “strictest possible safety precautions and advance notice to families,” including spacing demolitions at least 45 days apart. The health department provided additional direction later that demolitions in the five ZIP codes also required a 400-foot separation.
Yet, that wasn’t always done.
The Free Press found that in the summer months of 2018 and 2019, dozens of houses within 400 feet of one another were demolished and many were razed within 45 days of leveling of a nearby home — some even on the very same day.
For example, in 2018, three properties on the 8800 block of Canfield within 400 feet of each other were demolished by the same company over two days in late June.
One week later, less than 400 feet away from the Canfield cluster of demolitions, another contractor demolished two homes on the same day in the 4400 block of Holcomb across the street from each other.
The map below shows 2018 summer demolitions in the target ZIP codes, including a 400-foot radius around each site. Click on each point to see the demolition date, contractor and price.
In response to questions about these demolitions, the city claimed the rule stating demolitions could not be performed within 400 feet of each other applied only to nonemergency razings, despite the city’s own internal memo. All five demolitions completed in late June and early July were nonemergency, according to city data.
Properties slated for demolition are typically awarded to contractors after a bidding process in packages ranging from one house to more than 100 houses at a time.
According to 2019 bid requests reviewed by the Free Press, the properties are typically bid on in clusters within close proximity of one another. In several instances, the packages included structures on the same street. Contractors often tear clustered homes down on the same day or within a handful of days to reduce demolition and hauling costs. While it's more efficient, it conflicts with the city's purported safety guidelines that were set for the five impacted ZIP codes.
At the end of September 2019, three houses in a row at the end of the 4200 block of Webb Street were demolished on the same day, according to an analysis of city records. All of these buildings in the 48204 ZIP code were torn down by the same contractor. In this case, the multiple demolitions were classified as emergencies.
Elevated lead levels among Detroit's children are all too common in many corners of the city. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is publicly available, 14% or 99 of the 706 children under age 6 tested in 48204 had blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter. That’s the threshold the state considers to be an elevated blood lead level, according to the report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Detroit is home to nine of the top 11 ZIP codes in the state for highest rates of elevated blood level in tested children under the age of 6, including 48206, which has the highest.
Citywide, 7% of all tested children under 6 had an elevated blood lead level in 2018. That’s more than double the state’s rate of 2.9%. In the U.S., lead paint and dust in homes may account for up to 70% of childhood cases of elevated blood lead levels, according to one 2008 study.
And lead exposure disproportionately affects Black children across the nation. Black children have the highest rates of elevated blood lead levels, according to a national study published in February. The study found Black children who live in poverty are four times as likely to have elevated blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter compared with white or Hispanic children. In Detroit, 43% of children live below the federal poverty level.
Schroeck noted this has been an issue decades in the making fueled by structural racism, redlining and other exclusionary tactics that forced many Black Americans to live in heavily polluted areas, industrial zones and older housing that disproportionately exposes them to lead and other pollutants.
“Children in Detroit are exposed to more pollution than children in suburban communities, it’s just a fact,” Schroeck said.
The need for demolitions remains great. The city so far has completed more than 21,000 demolitions since 2014. In July, the mayor’s office estimated that roughly 14,000 blighted structures still need to be taken down.
But the city’s estimates may be a vast undercount. The Detroit Blight Removal Taskforce, a group convened by the Obama administration, estimated in May 2014 there were more than 84,000 properties with structures in severe disrepair or at risk of becoming so.
The city’s demolition program has long been plagued by problems, including a lack of transparency, a lengthy federal probe over bid-rigging and environmental violations, and contractors who didn’t follow the rules.
The Duggan administration says there are newly implemented safety measures to protect its most vulnerable residents despite the speed and scope of its efforts.
“We are unaware of a single protocol of any environmental regulations of any state in America that is more stringent than the city of Detroit’s protocols in managing the environmental risks of demolitions,” mayoral spokesman John Roach wrote. “In other words, the city of Detroit demolition protocols would meet or exceed the strictest standards of any state in America.”
But on that October day last year, Sonia Brown didn’t care about why or how houses were being demolished in her neighborhood.
All that mattered was Lyriq.
Brown is known as Auntie Na throughout the neighborhood. A community pillar, Brown transformed her dead-end block on Yellowstone Street into Auntie Na’s Village, where she lives in her two-story home near other homes repurposed into a student-run health clinic, a food pantry and community gathering place.
To friends and neighbors, she’s known for doling out tough love, food and shelter to anyone in need, no questions asked.
According to 2018 data, Brown’s ZIP code ranked fourth in the state for the percentage of children tested with elevated blood lead levels.
So as the houses around her came down, Brown worried that the demolitions themselves were doing more harm than good, potentially exposing children to greater levels of lead.
No safe level
But Lyriq found out she was relatively lucky that day.
Her blood lead levels tested at 4 micrograms per deciliter of lead, just below the 5 microgram level.
It seemed like a weight lifted in the room as Lyriq put her pink coat on to go back outside, her hair twists flopping behind her.
“Will I be able to paint my pumpkin still?” she asked, aiming her wide brown eyes at Brown, who nodded and said: “Go on ahead, baby. Have fun.”
As Lyriq dashed off without a tear, anxiety over the test results quickly returned.
Brown isn’t a doctor, but she knows any amount of lead in a child is alarming. Both state and CDC guidelines warn that there’s no safe blood lead level. “Even low levels of lead have been shown to affect IQs, the ability to pay attention and academic achievement,” according to the CDC.
Despite Lyriq's blood lead levels falling below the government's risk threshold, the health department workers said they planned to suggest that her mother follow up with her pediatrician.
Brown, the neighborhood's matriarch, still has questions, as Mayor Duggan is now asking residents of Detroit to vote in November in favor of a $250 million blight bond that would fund thousands more demolitions across the city.
“How long have our loved ones and our children been poisoned?” Brown asked. “If all of these homes still have lead, what's happening to all that lead and what's happening when you're tearing the house down and my babies are out in the lots over there playing in the playground? I’m not trying to put my city down and I'm not kicking my city, but I'm kicking those that's over my city.”
How it began
Lead poisoning has long been a serious concern for Detroit. According to a report from the city’s demolition safety task force, 93% of the city’s housing stock was built before 1978, when the federal government banned consumer use of lead-based paint.
So, the state of Michigan considers all children in the city to be at-risk, according to the Lead Pediatric Clinic at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Dr. Kanta Bhambhani has been the director of the clinic since 1983.
“We still do see a few children with very high lead levels, which really should not happen in this day and age,” Bhambhani said, adding the amount of children with high blood lead levels in Detroit has decreased over time.
Families affected by lead exposure are typically offered nutritional support and environmental methods to remove the source of the lead, but those who have extremely high levels of lead may be admitted to the clinic for other forms of therapy, according to the lead clinic. Testing typically focuses on children 6 and under.
“We know also that the chances of the child developing ADHD and other behavioral problems are much higher in children with lead poisoning,” Bhambhani said. “We say that 5 to 9 micrograms per deciliter is considered to be a level of concern, meaning that no child should have a level like this. ... Now, more and more scientific data is coming out that even levels less than 5 can be harmful to the child and as an advocate for a child, I would say that no level is safe.”
She said in Detroit, health officials must consider every potential source: including the city’s widespread demolitions.
“That’s a very legitimate concern,” Bhambhani said. “There's no question, especially in the summer months when children are playing outdoors, and the demolition of the house next door may have had — even if they removed every scrap of the old debris — I'm sure there would be still a scattering of lead dust in that area, and would be a potential source of lead for these children.”
Duggan began his fight against blight in 2014, soon after he was elected to his first term. He envisioned creating the nation’s largest demolition program to remove large swaths of residential blight from neighborhoods across the city. The program has moved aggressively at Duggan’s direction, leading some to question the public health impact of demolitions.
Concerns about the potential link first arose in an analysis led by then-Detroit Health Department Director Abdul El-Sayed in May 2016.
El-Sayed said he became curious after a meeting of the Lead Safe Detroit coalition, a group of city departments and community partners who coordinated childhood lead prevention and removal efforts. The coalition was discussing a group of kids who had recently been exposed to lead and possible sources of exposure when a nurse mentioned a couple houses had been demolished in the children’s neighborhood.
It was time, according to El-Sayed, to take a deeper look, knowing that it would be difficult to do since no one can state for certain where a child’s lead exposure originated. Another challenge, El-Sayed said, was that “demolitions cluster where housing quality is low and there’s poverty, which means kids are more likely to be exposed anyway.”
“It’s really a hard analysis to do,” El-Sayed said in an interview. “You have to be able to isolate all of the other things that cause lead poisoning in a child. … As we kept peeling back and isolating more and more, it became really clear that there was a clear link here. And it was statistically significant.”
Link to demolitions
The analysis found that, for a child, living within 400 feet of a demolition site increased the odds of having elevated blood lead levels by 20%. If there were two or more demolitions that occurred, the chances grew by 38%. The study also estimated that demolitions may be connected to at least 2.4% of Detroit children with elevated blood lead levels. It’s unclear whether more could have been attributed to demolitions because not all of Detroit’s children have been tested for lead poisoning.
El-Sayed commissioned a task force of internal and external experts to issue recommendations for reducing exposure to and potential health impacts from possible lead dispersion.
The group recommended “improvements to notification and enforcement processes that can lower risks of exposure.” One of the recommendations was providing families with hotel, travel and recreational vouchers that would give them the ability to leave neighborhoods while demolitions occurred.
El-Sayed said health department officials became concerned about the city’s demolition program and potential health impacts because of the large volume and speedy pace involved.
But the city never approved some of the suggestions, like the housing vouchers, saying in response to Free Press questions that “the Department of Neighborhoods strongly objected to the imposition on families, uprooting them from their neighborhoods.”
The task force posted its recommendations in February 2017. Shortly after, El-Sayed left his city post. (He later launched an unsuccessful Michigan gubernatorial bid.)
By the next year, El-Sayed and Duggan were exchanging fiery words in a public spat over the city’s handling of the demolition program and the former health department director’s concerns. In an interview with Michigan Radio on April 12, El-Sayed said Duggan “didn’t want to pay attention to the fact that Detroit’s demolitions program is poisoning kids with lead up until this year.”
Duggan’s administration fired back. “He is misrepresenting the very studies to which he refers and even his own tenure as Detroit's health director.” El-Sayed then upped the ante in a statement, calling for a citywide halt to demolitions during summer months of 2018.
City officials said their work didn’t end when El-Sayed left the city. Dr. Khaldun, who took over for El-Sayed at the city health department and is currently Michigan’s Chief Deputy Director for Health and Human Services, began reviewing the documents and recommendations with the task force to understand the data.
“Dr. Khaldun directed the department to do a more comprehensive analysis of the association between demolitions and EBLL’s (elevated blood lead levels), even as she moved forward in taking immediate steps to reduce potential exposure to lead dust,” city officials said in a statement.
Khaldun adopted some of the task force’s recommendations: improving public communication about demolitions: additional training for contractors; a demolition checklist for contractors and independent inspectors; wind advisories for demolitions to avoid days with high wind speeds, and standard street and sidewalk wetting procedures to reduce possible environmental contamination.
She also launched Detroit’s Interagency Lead Poisoning Prevention Task Force in 2018, which “developed a community health worker program with door-to-door outreach in (the top) five ZIP codes, providing in-home lead testing of children and pregnant women, cleaning kits for any potential lead dust in the home, and in-home testing for lead paint.”
She also launched the summer moratorium on select demolitions in 2018, according to the city.
Khaldun did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The city said two separate analyses by the Detroit Health Department, found there was no evidence of an association between demolitions and elevated blood lead levels in 2018 and 2019.
“There was a statistically significant association between demolitions and EBLLs (elevated blood levels) in previous year (sic), most notably 2016,” mayoral spokesman John Roach wrote in an email.
But one of the city’s most recent analyses, which included data from 2014-18, did find a relationship between elevated blood lead levels among Detroit children and demolitions.
Over the five-year period, the likelihood of having an elevated blood lead level was 19% higher among children who had a demolition occur within 400 feet of their home and were tested for lead within 45 days of the demolition. Among children exposed to two or more demolitions, the odds of having an elevated blood lead level was 63% higher compared with children with no demolition activity.
The study also found the relationship between demolition activity and elevated blood lead levels varied by year. Specifically, in 2017, a statistically significant relationship was found between one or more demolitions and children’s blood lead levels. In 2014 and 2016 a relationship existed only in the case of two or more demolitions.
In 2016, the odds of an elevated blood lead level were 136% higher among children exposed to two or more demolitions — the highest increase found in any year. There was no relationship between demolition activity and lead levels in either 2015 or 2018.
The latest results, according to the city, demonstrate that improved protocols are working. The health department rescinded the moratorium, which stated nonemergency demolitions would be halted in five at-risk ZIP codes across the city, in early August but noted “other safety protocols remain in effect.” The department said it plans to perform an analysis on an annual basis.
“They support the notion that the health and safety protocols implemented and strengthened within the demolition program over time are effective in protecting children’s exposure to lead,” the city said.
And now, four years after first raising concerns in 2016 about a potential link, El-Sayed says he believes the results of five-year study show the administration took the necessary steps to address the potential link.
“The new evidence shows that the risk of lead poisoning in relation to demolitions has been addressed,” El-Sayed said.
“And so, I think this is how you want government to work. You want, when there's a challenge, that government takes those challenges seriously and then works to address them, and makes them go away, and that is what happened in this case.”
Millions spent, millions more sought
Between January 2014 and September 2019, the city spent more than $532 million on its demolition blitz, tapping a mix of city and federal funds, according to the city’s independent auditor general.
If a bond measure is approved by voters in November, spending on blight removal over the next five years, including funds allocated outside of the bond proposal, could be as much as $500 million, according to a report by council's legislative policy division. That means by 2025, the city may have spent upward of $1 billion on blight remediation.
For Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López, who has spent much of her tenure fighting for environmental justice, questions remain. Castañeda-López voted no twice on advancing Duggan’s blight bond measure to voters.
She said she first became concerned with health effects of the demolition program while door knocking and visiting residents.
“There's always more that we can be doing,” said Castañeda-López, who has pressed city officials in memos for greater protection for children against lead exposure. “Even looking beyond lead … what are the health impacts of doing these demolitions on this massive scale on people's health overall?”
'They didn’t tell us'
Detroit’s 48206 ZIP code had the highest rate of elevated blood lead levels for children tested under 6 in the state in 2018. And, as with all lead exposure cases, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origin. But Kiara Head wonders about the impact of demolitions in her neighborhood, near Linwood and Joy Road.
There have been many in the nine years she has lived there with her mother. And she worries about her four children.
She thinks sometimes of the old three-story apartment building that towered over her neighborhood for years.
The building at 2753 Hazelwood once housed several families. The century-old apartment building had been vacant for years when the demolition crew rolled down Head’s west side street.
The demolition was a familiar scene. It was early May 2019 and Head’s four children were outside playing as they curiously watched the commotion across the street. The 13,000-plus square-foot building had been an eyesore for quite a while, so many gathered outside to watch it tumble down.
The city said contractors are required to display bright yellow lawn signs and door hangers to notify the community about impending demolitions. Residents can also opt in to a text message notification system. Basic lead home cleaning kits are also available via the city’s health department.
Dore & Associates was paid $227,000 to tear down the apartment building, which appeared to have fire damage and a collapsed roof. The city had deemed it an emergency.
Neither Head nor her mother recall seeing any notification of the pending demolition. Dore & Associates was required to post bright yellow door hangers on occupied properties within 400 feet of the structure, including Head’s home. Representatives for Dore & Associates did not respond to requests for comment.
“They didn't tell us nothing,” Head recalled. “Like I said, I just remember one day, they came and like blocked it off with gates, and then the next couple days they was tearing it down.”
Several other nearby residents reached by the Free Press said they also did not recall receiving any notifications.
The city said regular notification policy may not have been followed.
“2753 Hazelwood was an emergency demolition of an apartment building,“ city officials said in a statement. “Due to the expeditious nature of emergency demolitions, contractors are expected to knock the impending collapse threat within 24 hours. The shortened timeline often does not allow for the demolition notification protocols that are used for regularly scheduled demolitions.”
While precautions exist on paper, it’s often difficult to know how often they are followed. The health department’s five-year analysis noted that while the city has implemented new protocols to protect residents that might be reducing lead exposure, they were “unable to verify whether all improved safety precautions, particularly those related to notification, were consistently implemented.”
Several community members, including a handful of the Wayne State University medical students who volunteer and help run Auntie Na’s medical house, have concerns about whether the city is appropriately notifying residents of the demolition process.
Four of the students — Zaid Mohsen, Lucky Mulpuri, Liz Martin and Samantha Keller — tested the text messaging notification themselves and found that the process was convoluted and difficult for residents to follow.
On Sept. 27, 2018, Keller wrote in a detailed log that when she called the health department to inquire about how to obtain a lead kit, she was told to call a different city department. But that number didn't work.
The city's lead kits for residents contain gloves, paper towels, cleaning solution and instructions on how to remove dangerous lead paint chips and dust from their homes. Keller eventually learned the lead kits were available at recreation centers, including Adams Butzel Recreation Center, through the city’s demolition text messaging service.
But when she went there, the employees there had no idea what a lead kit was and said they were not stocking any. Keller said she was then referred to another location, Butzel Family Recreation Center, an 18-minute drive away. There, she finally received a kit.
“I was the first one to pick up a kit and the kits had been in stock for approximately two months,” Keller said. “I couldn’t help but think if I had this much trouble, what would it be like for a resident who didn’t have the time to go through all of this?”
Separately, a November 2019 city auditor’s report determined the city's demolition program had been mismanaged and beset with significant problems for years.
The agency audited 47 demolitions between 2014 and 2018 and found all companies failed to follow most resident safety protocols, such as posting signs during all phases of demolition to notify residents and prevent trespassing. Earlier investigations by the Free Press also found deficiencies, including contractors tearing down the wrong homes and demolishing structures without properly removing asbestos and other materials.
The city challenged the auditor’s findings, adding that it was not “commercially reasonable to review and approve this documentation for every demolition.”
“Failing to adhere to city policies and procedures … jeopardizes the safety and well-being of the citizens of Detroit,” the auditor general report stated.
Either way, Head wishes she knew more before about the demolition process and potential health implications.
“I feel like everybody should take precaution from this point forward,” Head said. “The city needs to do better as far as, you know, telling people what's going on in their neighborhoods.”
A community bands together
Today, Sonia Brown’s beloved neighborhood, which is sandwiched between Livernois and Dexter avenues, has seen better days.
Over the years, Brown said she’s seen many lead-exposed children walk through the doors of her home, their parents frantic, looking for answers and help as their children began to display classic signs of lead poisoning — trouble focusing, educational delays and behavior issues.
Residents here and throughout Detroit shoulder the daily struggles that come with living in the nation’s largest Black city, one that has been devastated by the dual crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, with historically high unemployment. More than 1,500 Detroiters have died of the virus and fresh waves of uncertainty have arisen in a city not too far removed from municipal bankruptcy.
The west-side neighborhood is also surrounded by blighted homes, a pervasive problem the city has been working feverishly to address. The conundrum is that it's both a relief to many Detroiters but an ever-present concern to Brown, who questions the true health implications of a city performing demolitions at a rapid pace, often clustered together.
Brown still holds out hope. It’s a hope that her concerns and those of the rest of her community will truly be heard.
“You see, all of this, everything I’m saying, it’s really for them,” Brown said, motioning at the children playing in front of her house and families picking up boxes of food. “Because at the end of the day, we work hard and we fight hard because we know if we don’t, who else will?”