City Council: Reject Blight Bond Mortgage on Detroit’s Future

Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the President and Director of Research at The PuLSE Institute, where she brings a strong commitment to social justice, equity and democracy. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the Editor-Chief of The PuLSE Institute at info@thepulseinstitute.org

“Courage is one step ahead of fear.” –Coleman A. Young

By Tina M. Patterson, Esq 

After weeks of kicking the can down the road, the Detroit City Council has yet another opportunity to take decisive action on a controversial $250 million bond proposal presented by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan as a plan for blight elimination. Rather than delay the issue once more, City Council should definitively follow the words of the man for whom their office is named after, the honorable Coleman Alexander Young, Detroit’s first black mayor and a man who took courageous action. Detroit City Council can finally step up to the plate as the ultimate and authoritative governing body and take a stand to protect the future of Detroit by voting against the proposal.

Blight Bond Proposal Lacks Comprehensive Revitalization Measures

In September, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan presented a request to City Council to authorize a March 2020 ballot initiative asking voters to give the city authority to sell up to $250 million in bonds to remove all residential blight from every Detroit neighborhood by mid-2025.

No one disagrees that blight is an issue in the city and that it contributes to loss and negative consequences in a neighborhood. Yet while the elimination of blight is viewed as an improvement, demolition effectively destroys a neighborhood rather than improves any blight. Without a robust plan for neighborhood revitalization in blighted areas, the bond proposal is a nail in the coffin of neighborhoods desperately seeking help to rehabilitate their communities.

The administration has touted the bond proposal as a historic blight program, but at no point has the administration presented any renovation or rehabilitation plan to follow its grand demolition plan. Hundreds of millions of dollars can breathe life into neighborhoods that are in desperate need of resuscitation, but Mayor Duggan would rather utilize the funds to exterminate instead of revitalize communities.

Duggan said he anticipates 8,000 structures will be renovated, yet that is less than half the 19,000 structures destined for destruction under his blight removal plan. Additionally, the plan does not satisfactorily address removal or renovation of future blighted properties that can occur prior to the proposed elimination period due to unpredictable factors such as population loss, vandalism, and fires. 

Furthermore, Duggan expressed that renovations would occur through Detroit Land Bank sales and legal actions against owners of privately owned vacant buildings, a vague, unreliable, and likely time-consuming plan as opposed to a detailed city-led policy to ensure revitalization of the areas after blight removal.

Council Must Reject Complicity with Mainstream Media

During the September announcement, Mayor Duggan proclaimed, “I’m confident the voters of the city of Detroit would like to see the city blight-free.” Apparently, he has ignored the hundreds of residents who have shown up in droves at his community meetings and city council meetings to ardently express their disapproval of his proposal. 

Of course, you would not know of the massive opposition to the mayor’s bond proposal because the media is conspicuously absent when Duggan is berated by angry residents expressing extreme displeasure with his policies, a seemingly deliberate measure the media goes the extra mile to fulfill in order to portray Duggan in only the best light possible. 

One of the biggest shames in this blight proposal controversy is the role of mainstream media. Rather than serve as the highly esteemed fourth estate to hold government accountable, the media has been little more than a public relations machine that reverberates the message of the Duggan administration without question. By far, the media has not been a credible voice in distributing a balanced perspective of news about the highly controversial bond issue, or virtually anything Duggan has supported.

As an example of the depths to which the media is willing to serve Duggan’s agenda, a “report” by Channel 4’s Hank Winchester went so far as to report that city officials put contractors on notice that their demolition work might be significantly scaled back unless council supports the upcoming bond proposal. This “report,” conveniently released the weekend prior to another potential council vote, lacked any morsel of integrity and served as nothing more than a shameless plug for a mistrustful administration.

The federal investigation into the demolition program is a well-established fact. The demolition audit with significant findings of years-long mismanagement of the demolition program is a well-established fact. The disparity in contracts awarded to black contractors in a majority black city is a well-established fact. Despite all the evidence necessary to raise legitimate concerns against this bond proposal, the mainstream media has no intention of reporting this counter argument justifying scrutiny of an administration so bereft of transparency.

Additionally, it would be inadequate to exclude the racism inherent in the media’s thin reporting of the Duggan administration’s transgressions. The media engaged in a full-court press on former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick as his administration went under siege to corruption and scandal. If former Mayor Kilpatrick sneezed without covering his mouth, the media would report on it. However, the federal and state investigations of the administration of Mayor Mike Duggan, the first white mayor in 40 years, has been allowed to pass quietly into the evening news without the brigade of cameras and reporters at his doorstep.

This blatant racially disparate treatment exemplifies the words of the late, great black theologian, James H. Cone, who in his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, stated: “At no time are the rebels given the opportunity to define their way of looking at the world, because the mass media belong to the oppressors who will not permit the seditious presence to extend itself.”

The media has given the Duggan administration a pass for too long. City Council, the duly elected legislative check on the executive administration, cannot in good conscience join the media as an accomplice in pushing whatever Duggan wants to pass into law.

Public Trust Lacking in Duggan Administration

Throughout his time in office, Duggan’s administration has been mired in scandal. From the ongoing federal demolition probe, to problematic police department mired in racial issues that Duggan has failed to condemn and take leadership of, and deletion of emails linked to a nonprofit in which Duggan allegedly gave favor, there is no question that the public trust in the Duggan administration is tarnished. City residents know it, judging from the many opposing voices who have already shown up to demand Council reject the bond proposal. Notably, they seem to have an ally in Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who disregarded political deference and boldly sought fairness under the law and governmental accountability with the investigation into the last five years of the administration’s often questionable actions.

In an effort to quell Council and community concerns, the administration has revised the bond proposal to include a new city demolition department to manage the demolition program, a demolition review board of mayoral and council appointees, and an over 50% requirement of contracts to Detroit based businesses.

Based on its problematic history, the Administration’s bond proposal seems to be nothing more than words on paper with no intent to put to their plan into credible action, and quite frankly, cannot be trusted to fulfill.

Regarding the 50% requirement, the city had a similar agreement in place for the construction of the Little Caesar’s Arena, which it infamously failed to satisfy, resulting in $2.9 million in fines for frequently not hiring at least 51 percent of Detroiters. With the failure to fulfill the requirement with Little Caesar’s, how can the city be trusted to follow through now? How in good faith or even common sense can the City Council believe this requirement will be met this time around?

Additionally, the administration’s demolition program has been scrutinized nearly since its inception, and a recent audit justified such scrutiny with findings that the city’s demolition program has been mismanaged and beset with significant problems for the past four years. The stinging audit found that the Detroit Building Authority, one of the would be managing agencies under the blight proposal, “failed to properly provide oversight and administer contracts; did not fully comply with some local and state laws; didn’t monitor to ensure that demolition contractors met requirements.”

True to the arrogance of the Duggan administration, Building Authority director Tyrone Clifton audaciously accused the auditor’s office of producing an audit that represented an “unrepresentative, outdated sample of demolition files (that) severely undermines the report.” This bold statement was made despite the fact that the independent auditing agency was forced to subpoena the Building authority twice for more information.

The audit also questioned the true costs of demolition, finding that over $200 million dollars spent on demolition funds have been spent on pre-demolition activities such as property surveys and personnel, begging the question of whether the bond proposal is even a fiscally responsible solution to blight removal. Duggan has also stated the bond will not result in additional taxes to residents, which has been disputed by City Council financial analysts, meaning that ultimately, city taxpayers could be on the hook for yet another potentially scandalous program put forth by the administration.

Mayor Duggan himself conceded that the city had to clean up the demolition program when the U.S. Department of the Treasury suspended the city’s federally funded demolitions in 2016. And though he insists it has improved, the demolition program remains under federal investigation. With that said, what good is his word for Council to approve such a consequential blight removal measure?

As for the Detroit Land Bank Authority, no mayor’s mandated community meeting is complete without several detailed complaints about DLBA’s failure to adequately inform citizens and follow through on its own policy, not infrequently leading to loss of land.

The Land Bank is the city’s top landlord, with a reported 30,000 vacant homes in 2018, yet it listed only 3% of its massive inventory for sale. What good sense does it make to task the Land Bank with more homes to leave untouched and with its continuing demolition federal investigation, how in good conscious can one reward such an agency mired in irresponsibility with more work to be done?

City Council should immediately say no to anything more getting in to the clutches of the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

 $250M Better Spent Ending Water Shutoffs

Detroit desperately needs a $250M investment citywide, but there have been other prominent issues that the money could be well used to address other than blight. The problem is that Mayor Mike Duggan has not had interest in taking on these issues because he has repeatedly shown no interest in being a political champion for the poor.

Water is the biggest example of his tepid engagement with substantial quality of life issues. Water is a globally recognized human right by the United Nations, and this recognition has been gaining steam across the nation. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, newly elected within her first term, boldly decreed water as a human right and declared moratoriums on water shutoffs. Recently elected Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley has also called for a moratorium on water shutoffs. Yet Mayor Duggan, now in his second term and sixth year of office, has never uttered such a humane statement regarding water as a basic necessity of life. In fact, the UN lambasted Detroit water shutoffs in 2014, and while Water and Sewage Director Gary Brown admitted poverty is a factor in the shutoffs, no resolution has been set forth to adequately address affordability and there has been no end to the shutoffs, currently at 16,000 accounts.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer likewise rejected a humane request by the ACLU to declare the water issue in Detroit a health emergency. However, Whitmer readily jet in to Detroit to deliver false news of free tuition with Mayor Duggan at Wayne State University as a much needed pick me up after an Inspector General report found improper conduct related to Duggan’s favored treatment of the Make Your Date Program. Had Whitmer followed Nessel’s lead in confronting Duggan’s questionable policies rather than cheerleading him during the midst, she could have been the champion for the poor she disguised herself as during her campaign, when she declared she would appoint a cabinet level poverty position, which nearly one year into her term has been proven a falsity.

The $250 million in funding sought by Duggan could easily be put to better use in a myriad of innovative policies, such as creating a water safety net for impoverished residents who can’t afford water bills, subsidies for affordable housing, or a universal basic income fund to help low income residents meet their basic needs and improve their overall quality of life. Other mayors around the country have executed these bold ideas without hesitation. There is no reason Duggan cannot do the same, and no reason Council cannot hold him accountable for this glaring failure.

Step Up to End the Suffering

Ultimately, what is the end result in all these political and public relations charades? People are suffering. The absolute worst part of the political acrobats, the media complicity, and the failed city leadership to hold the Duggan administration accountable is that people must undoubtedly suffer because their needs are being purposefully neglected, meaning their livelihoods have been rendered disposable.

Council, this is an easy one honestly, a no-brainer. Courage and good conscience necessitate the rejection of this woefully inadequate and untrustworthy blight proposal.

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