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Published: Wednesday, 6/9/2010

Detroit razes empty house once owned by Romneys


DETROIT - A former childhood home of 2008 Republican presidential candidate and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was demolished yesterday as part of Detroit's plan to wipe out thousands of dangerous and blighted houses from city neighborhoods.

It only took an excavator about an hour to knock down the walls and cave in the roof of the 5,500-square-foot house where Mr. Romney's family lived from 1941 to 1953 - years before his father, George, was elected Michigan's governor.

Unlike thousands of other vacant houses in the city, the structure at 1860 Balmoral in Detroit's exclusive Palmer Woods area wasn't open to trespass, neighbors said as it crashed and crumbled to the ground.

There didn't appear to be any vandalism and it certainly didn't become a haven to drug dealers like many others across the city, 58-year-old Tyrone Stewart said.

Mr. Stewart said he wasn't questioning how it made Mayor Dave Bing's list of 3,000 homes slated to come down this year - he's just happy that it did.

"You have to protect your tax base," said Mr. Stewart, a retired firefighter who has lived in Palmer Woods about two decades.

The house on Balmoral is in an area of Detroit where there are few vacancies and where property taxes typically rise above $10,000 per year.

"Blight is like a disease and will spread if not addressed," Mr. Bing said in a a statement e-mailed to the Associated Press.

The former Romney home in the exclusive Palmer Woods area needed more work than the owner could afford, a neighbor said. The former Romney home in the exclusive Palmer Woods area needed more work than the owner could afford, a neighbor said.

"If the city begins to lose our tax base, then there goes the entire city."

He said neighbors had been trying for years to have the house razed and the demolition was part of an effort to stabilize stronger neighborhoods in Detroit.

Detroit's tax base is eroding as people and businesses flee, leaving thousands of vacant buildings.

The population could drop below 800,000 when updated census figures are released.

A recent survey revealed about 33,000 vacant homes across Detroit.

Tens of thousands of occupied homes are falling apart, with about 50,000 presently going through foreclosure.

About 860 vacant houses were demolished in 2009.

Mr. Bing has promised to tear down 3,000 this year and another 3,000 in 2011. By the time his four-year term ends, he expects to have completed 10,000 demolitions.

Palmer Woods has escaped the neglect swamping other parts of Detroit. The median sales price for homes there is about $257,000.

Even so, sales prices have depreciated there by nearly half over the last five years, according to the real estate Web site Trulia.com.

Wayne County seized the house on Balmoral from its current owners in court in 2009, declaring it a nuisance, and a demolition permit was issued.

As the house came down, Mr. Stewart and a handful of other neighbors looked on more with resignation than glee.

"It was a bit of an eyesore and we were hoping the right person would move into it," he said. "The guy that bought it couldn't afford to continue with the renovations."

Once the site is cleared, Mr. Stewart said he expects the land to be put up for sale.

If another house is soon built on the site, that would be a "win-win" for the neighborhood and entire city, said Ava Tinsley, a neighborhood advocate and chairman of the Woodward Avenue Restoration District.

"It hurts me that any house has to be torn down and not rehabbed or refurbished," she said. "Why can't we find someone to occupy the house rather than tear any down?"

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