On a cold, snowy, February afternoon in Detroit at the Masonic Temple, a small, but an influential crowd gathered to hear the noted urban planner Allan Mallach and Detroit’s Planning and Development Director, Maurice Cox, address the Detroit Economic Club.
The topic that afternoon was perspectives on Detroit’s revitalization efforts. And the panelist’s response to the narrative that has taken root over the last decade that in spite of the city’s economic rebound and widespread development projects throughout the city, it remains so sharply divided along with race, class and economic lines, that that there is in fact, “Two Detroit’s.”
While the atmosphere was relaxed and convivial, it was apparent from the start that each man held widely divergent views on the matter.
“No city fell as far as Detroit,” said Mallach, author of The Divided City, which takes an in-depth look at racial, social and economic dynamics over the past six decades that nearly hollowed out the Motor City and ultimately drove it into bankruptcy. “No city the size of Detroit, as far as I know, has ever gone through bankruptcy.”
“These are all maybe extreme things,” he said. “Detroit really became kind of like the poster child for urban distress. And now, hopefully, urban revival.”
Both speakers agreed that things have changed for the better over the past decade. In addition to major headline-grabbing developments such as Fiat Chrysler’s planned $4.5 billion manufacturing expansion with its the planned conversion of the Mack Avenue Engine factory to an assembly plant for the next-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee and a new, Jeep SUV, the city’s social indicators are also on the uptick.
For example, the unemployment rate has been cut in half from 20 percent to 8.5 percent and 35,000 Detroiters have been moved out of poverty in the last five years. And since 2015, the average Detroit household has seen an income increase of about $4,500 annually. Also, the city is moving forward in its plans to invest $10 million to hire 70 more Detroit Police Department personnel (civilian and officer), $4.5M more for job training programs and expanding the Detroit Promise to include covering the cost of numerous certifications for the skilled trades.
Cox and other city officials say these are the important indicators of Detroit’s improved social health. Although they aren’t glamorous and don’t draw bug headlines, they are real indicators that the city’s recovery is more equitably distributed than given credit for.
“Although the city’s downtown and midtown have seen significant reinvestment and development, the mayor’s office is focused on rebuilding the city’s neighborhoods too,” he said.
Cox said Detroit is at the forefront of experimentation and the exploration in neighborhood revitalization. Examples of this are initiatives
The $250M Affordable Housing Leverage Fund, which will help to create another 2,000 units of new affordable housing and extend the affordable status of another 10,000 units at risk of going market rate.
The Detroit Land Bank’s new program called Occupied Buy Back, which helps people who are squatting in vacant land bank homes allows them to be given the title, as long as they can demonstrate a past connection to the property, have been maintaining it and complete a year-long homeowner preparedness training. So far 571 individuals have gone from squatter to an owner in just the past two years.
The Detroit Home Mortgage program, created in 2016, has helped to double the number of mortgages made in Detroit on an annual basis.
In addition, Mayor Duggan has noted that more than 1500 new affordable housing units have been approved, under construction or now open. This represents 37% of all the new multi-family housing unit developments in the city since 2014. Affordable has ranges – from below 80% of the area median income to as low as 60% and 50%.
“We’re going to learn as we go along,” said Cox. “And we’re going to shift courses and I can now point to seven such areas that have uniquely tailored strategies that work with the residents who are … in those particular neighborhoods. And guess what? We are going to learn something from each one of them and bring those lessons to the next crop of neighborhoods.”
Still, Sandy Baruah president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber was much less sanguine about the state of the city regarding the question of there being two Detroit’s.
“It’s an absolute fact,” he said.
“There is no doubt that there are some parts of the city thriving and doing significantly better than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago. But it has not always translated directly to many neighborhoods,” Baruah said. “But there is an indirect benefit. The more areas of the city that are economically sustainable like downtown, lead to more job opportunities and more taxes paid. So that leads to a city that has more resources.”