Paffendorf’s startup, Loveland Technologies, created a website called “Why Don’t We Own This?” It addresses one of Detroit’s biggest problems: abandoned property. Detroit is big, covering 139 square miles, enough to hold Boston, Manhattan, and San Francisco. Yet over the past 60 years, its population has shrunk from 1.8 million to just over 700,000. As a result, thousands of foreclosed, government-owned lots go up for auction for as little as a few hundred dollars. Identifying those properties is a labyrinth for anyone without a real estate license. Loveland’s website provides a simplified and information-rich online map of auction property for anyone looking to buy. Renters, too, can learn if a building is on the verge of foreclosure.
Paffendorf’s website is significant because it represents a new, simplified approach to these problems, from the toilet paper to the schools. Detroit has often sought salvation in big solutions: a car company comeback; the Renaissance Center, a cluster of seven towers downtown; casinos; the 2006 Super Bowl; the 2009 election of Bing, a Detroit Piston star turned steel magnate. Nothing has worked. But the city’s depression—and the depressed real estate prices that came with it—created opportunities. And opportunity lures entrepreneurs. The startup types, like Paffendorf. And the ones with lots of money, like Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, the third-largest mortgage provider in the country; he moved 1,700 employees downtown in 2010, giving him 7,000 employees there and making him Detroit’s third-largest landowner (trailing only the city and General Motors). With slicked-back hair and a perpetual poker face, Gilbert has just gotten started on his plan to transform the area.