SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — Bill Heaney gets about two calls a day from people who bought foreclosed, vacant 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, Mich.; Cleveland and Dayton, Ohio; Camden, N.J.; and Buffalo, N.Y.
“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.”
It’s one that has grown as the city, which has a $326 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 it, 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 $10,000, homes stripped of plumbing, wiring and other parts quickly become valueless, George said.
“You’ve done almost irreversible damage,” said George. “You can fix anything, but the reality is, when is enough enough?”
With about 19 percent of its 360,951 units lacking complete plumbing, Detroit trailed only Gary, Indiana, with 24 percent, in the concentration of bathroom-deficient housing among large U.S. cities, according to the census.
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.
The backsliding goes against the long-term trend. Forty- five percent of all U.S. housing units lacked complete plumbing in 1940. By 1990, the number was 1.1 percent. Yet from 2008 to 2011, the number of fully plumbed homes declined in all 50 states, the data showed.
The U.S. county with the highest percentage is the Yukon- Koyukuk census area of Alaska, with 62 percent. Slightly more than 13 percent 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, 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 in the area for 27 years.
His niece recently paid $240 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 $4.62 a pound on the London Metal Exchange in February 2011 before ending that year down 21 percent. An average single-family home uses 439 pounds of copper, according to the Copper Development Association.
New Jersey Assembly member Angel Fuentes, D, who said his own home in Camden was burglarized 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 a Jan. 30 telephone interview.
In one recent case, thieves stole copper pipes from a church basement that were probably worth $100, he said. Damage to the church exceeded $1,200.
The metal in a typical urban home is worth about $1,000 to $1,500, a fraction of the cost to repair the damage. Thieves smash the toilets for brass fittings and even tear apart window frames for metal counterweights, plumber Heaney said.
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 stabilize the area.
At about $10,000 for each home, just taking down eight residences last year and another eight this year means the group is out $160,000 in funds for “just throwing stuff away,” he said.
“We hope that when we catch up, there will still be something left to save.” George said. “The strippers really cause a lot of heartache on a lot of levels. Once a house is stripped like that, the next step is demolition. It’s almost like grabbing a handful of sand. The harder you squeeze, the more you lose.”
With assistance from Joe Richter in New York, Chris Christoff in Lansing and Mark Niquette in Columbus.