Warren, Michigan is a city, like all cities, that can’t outrun the shadow of its history.
It loomed large at a recent City Council Committee of the Whole meeting, where the show revolved around the fate of a zoning ordinance that opponents have criticized as a decoy for residential segregation.
The basic idea is simple: with a majority vote, homeowners in a given neighborhood, drawn into what are called “overlay districts,” would be able to ban any additional rentals from going on the market in that neighborhood. In one corner of the room, a small group of local activists is clustered to raise their voices in opposition.
By allowing homeowners to impose their will in this way, says Dez Squire, a longtime Warren resident and organizer, the ordinance might “inadvertently allow racism” to be smuggled “into this practice.”
That’s because, as Warren diversifies, especially due to in-migration from its southern border with Detroit, renting is the only option available to many working-class people of color hoping to relocate.
Squire puts it simply: “Rentals have been an opportunity for” people of color “to be able to move into my neighborhood.” Thus, a policy allowing homeowners to ban rentals could ruin Warren’s ability “to diversify.” More chillingly, it would damage what many consider a basic human freedom: the right to choose where one lives without the threat of being shoved back into a corner.
For activists, the brief but consequential battle reflected criss-crossing realities in both the city of Warren and Macomb County as a whole: a disgraceful lack of black elected leadership, and a vicious, ongoing legacy of racist residential exclusion.
Squire dusted off this history at the meeting, highlighting Warren’s past as a “sundown town.” As sociologist James Loewen lays out in his landmark book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, Warren was just one of thousands of such towns scattered across the country, and dozens surrounding Detroit, that were fiercely committed to remaining white.
And they were remarkably successful. How? By basically turning themselves into fortresses against integration, relying on a mixture of public policy, private discrimination, and homegrown harassment and terror to get the job done. Black people knew not to breach the fortress walls by attempting to make a home, or even lingering past dark, in places like Warren — Places where you “don’t let the sun go down on you.”
Over the years, the nature, application, and depth of that prejudice has certainly changed. But for at least some Warren residents, ideas like restricting the available stock of affordable housing options contain too many uncomfortable echoes of the past to go overlooked. Like many of the measures that maintained former systems of residential segregation, the ordinance was based on flimsy ideas like “neighborhood stability” and “safety,” universally understood euphemisms for keeping out “undesirable” populations.
Joel Rutherford, Chair of the Official Democratic Black Caucus of Macomb County, returned to Warren in 2006 after living outside of Michigan for decades. He had high hopes of returning to a city, and a county, that was ready to embrace what felt like the progressive winds of history. Instead, he found “that the underlying prejudice was still there.”
Rutherford was one of several speakers at the meeting who hammered the council for its hastiness, insisting that “if you want to do something about this, do it with an investigation” into the possible consequences.
It turns out that the city Planning Department had done exactly that. In an analysis of the proposal, they were “unable to find any supporting research that indicates rental properties should be restricted or reduced as a sound planning strategy.” It did, however, find that “Warren’s lack of affordable housing came to the forefront in the research provided by Eviction Lab, which ranked Warren #9 in the country for evictions.”
As Pete Sutliff, a Warren homeowner, went on to explain, the stakes for working-class people are staggeringly obvious. In response to a deeply unserious question from Council President Cecil Pierre about how one’s income impacts their ability to afford housing, Sutliff answers that “the lower the income, the harder it is to find affordable housing. That seems pretty straightforward. As does the law of supply and demand…the lower supply, the more demand and the higher the price.”
By the time it’s all over, and following a string of public comments urging that it be withdrawn, the proposal is quietly boxed and shelved. At least for now. For anyone who’s watching, it’s obvious that this is in part done to save the council any further embarrassment under the withering eye of public scrutiny. For activists, there’s an important lesson here about the power of ordinary people: a relatively small crew of dedicated residents challenged their local decision-makers and those decision-makers flinched.
“Your hope was granted,” Council President Pierre tells them.