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 U.S. homes with complete plumbing by about 10.4 percent from 2008 to 2011, according to U.S. Census data compiled by Bloomberg. 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 U.S. cities in homes that the Census Bureau says lack basic plumbing. The agency found similar devolution in Flint, Michigan; Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio; Camden, New Jersey; and Buffalo, New York.
“It’s a vicious circle,” said John George, who has run the nonprofit Motor City Blight Busters in Detroit for a quarter century, trying to rehabilitate crumbling neighborhoods. “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 major problem.”
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 flush toilet; a bathtub or shower; and a sink with a faucet, according to census criteria. Almost 3 million homes in the U.S., about 2.2 percent of the total, lacked plumbing in 2011, according to the census figures.