Editor’s Note: Tina Patterson, president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, was among those who attended a recent Detroit Economic Club meeting at Cobo Hall which featured Mayor Mike Duggan discussing the neighborhoods. She gives a candid assessment of the meeting in this column for PuLSE followers and readers.
By Tina M. Patterson
“What About the Neighborhoods?”
That was the topical question at a meeting of the Detroit Economic Club featuring Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan on Tuesday, January 22. The topic emanated from a recently announced boost to the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund, comprised of donations from various banks and corporations, including Chemical Bank, whose Chairman, Gary Torgow, was featured on the panel alongside Mayor Duggan and Alicia George, founder of Java House and Artist Village Detroit.
Economic inequality in this recovery has been routinely dismissed by city officials, yet recent economic forecasts have predicted an incomplete recovery without investment in Detroit’s neighborhoods.
Accordingly, the bolster to the Strategic Neighborhood Fund is a step in the right direction toward finally steering financial investment away from downtown and midtown and into the neighborhoods of the city. In fact, during the meeting, Mr. Torgow stated that without the neighborhoods, Detroit cannot come back the way it wants and highlighted them as the key to the city’s future.
While the meeting centered upon small business development and home ownership as key factors in neighborhood revitalization, it became apparent that economic disparities likewise exist among the neighborhoods themselves. When moderator Stephen Henderson echoed the mayor’s recurring theme of “every neighborhood has a future,” Mr. Henderson implied that he meant it to believe every neighborhood had the same future. Immediately, Mayor Duggan refuted this notion, with which Mr. Henderson agreed, confirming it is not something the mayor ever expressed directly and pressing no further on the issue.
Yet this noticeable exchange insinuated that there are indeed “two Detroits”, as some neighborhoods appear to have strategically crafted futures, while others simply await what fate may bring them. Ms. George, owner of Java Hut in the Old Redford neighborhood also agreed that the economic disparity is real. When asked about the nearby Brightmoor community, Ms. George poignantly admitted that the people of Brightmoor felt abandoned in comparison to the development supported in the neighboring community of Old Redford.
In summary, the answer to the question what about the neighborhoods is this: development is coming to neighborhoods, but it is not equitable. As an example, although the median income of the city of Detroit is $26,200, the median income of Brightmoor is less, at $22,000, while the median income of Old Redford has more than double that of Brightmoor, at $45,800. Lower income neighborhoods are slower to receive help and investment, though they remain most in need, and one word that was glaringly absent from the entirety of the meeting summarizes it best: poverty.
There was no talk of poverty, and not so much as one mention of the word during the meeting in the city with the highest poverty rate of any big city in the nation. It is unfathomable that in the face of raw data and statistics that confirm the poverty crisis in Detroit, including a potentially massive displacement of thousands of renters, this administration dares not speak the word.
Furthermore, Mayor Duggan seemed to again brush off the notion of “two Detroits.” He quickly dismissed the term and stated that the people in the neighborhoods know the truth, pointing to the increased value of their property and homes and the functioning of routine city services as evidence that the city is doing well.
This perspective is flawed for at least for three reasons:
First, despite the positive, jovial tone and outlook of the prospect of home ownership, Mayor Duggan failed to mention that Detroit is now a majority renters’ city rather than home owners. Additionally, throughout the meeting, there was no true accountability of the banking industry’s role in the destruction of the city’s home ownership, particularly of African Americans, during the mortgage crisis, especially the 2008 recession. This is crucial to note as historically, home ownership has been the anchor of black wealth in America, despite notorious and persistent racial discrimination in housing.
Secondly, despite the recent increase of home values in Detroit, the city is still recovering from a settlement by a major lawsuit brought against it by the ACLU for making state-mandated property tax breaks inaccessible for the poor, causing unnecessary foreclosures. Furthermore, the city over-assessed homes for years at an average of 65% above value, leading to thousands of foreclosures and temporary oversight by the Michigan Tax Commission.
Finally, while the mayor referenced functioning city services, such as lights being on and garbage picked up, as something residents are pleased with, he failed to mention the notorious and ongoing water affordability crisis in Detroit. Thousands of residents have been at risk of water shutoffs, with one city official, Detroit Water and Sewage Director Gary Brown, pointing the finger right at poverty as the cause of the problem.
Throughout the meeting, it was evident that “two Detroits” exist- one ripe for investment, and one in need but questionable whether investment will ever be within reach. And throughout the meeting, it was evident that poverty was the Mason-Dixon Line that no one dared cross.
In addition to poverty, what was also missing at the meeting was any identifiable or substantive critique of the overall state of the recovery. Acknowledging that poverty is real is not a weakness. At this point, it is not only a reality, but a reality that can no longer be denied and must be addressed to move the city forward
With Detroit at an economic crossroads, Mayor Duggan will do well by acknowledging that poverty is a problem in his city and pledging to address it through sincere policies, and take heed to the words of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we celebrated this week:
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but… because one’s conscience tells one that it is right.”