May 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Suburbs gain while Detroit population drops below 700,000

David Guralnick)

Detroit— The 60-year exodus from Detroit is continuing but may be slowing, as the city’s population has fallen under 700,000 residents, according to estimates released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The government pegs the city’s population at 688,701 as of summer 2013, down nearly 10,000 residents from 2012. The rate of decline, though, has slowed to an average of 7,500 per year since 2010 compared with 24,000 per year in the 2000s.

Suburban counties — Oakland, Macomb and Livingston — gained about 1 percent in population, while Wayne County lost about 1 percent, the records show. Its decline is fueled largely by Detroit, which had 1.9 million residents in 1950 and is now smaller than it was at any point since before 1920.

The bureau estimates Detroit’s population actually fell below 700,000 in 2012, but those revised numbers had not been released previously. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he’s committed to ending the decline.

“This is why I ran,” Duggan told The Detroit News. “I am going to be judged on one thing: whether the administration can reverse that trend. We are totally focused on salvaging our housing stock and moving people back in the city.”

The census data don’t indicate where Detroit residents are going, but show that some outer suburbs are booming six years after the real-estate meltdown.

“Sprawl is back,” said Kurt Metzger, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit who reviewed the numbers.

In Lyon Township in western Oakland County, subdivisions that had stalled for years are building, said Katherine Des Rochers, the township’s planning secretary. Its population jumped nearly 6 percent to 16,462, and the township has issued 1,010 building permits since 2010, according to Southeast Michigan Council of Governments data.

“Everything that was in progress has been resuming. We’re getting developments all over the place, especially in the last year,” she said. “Home prices have come down so much that people are getting more houses for their money.”

Prices are creeping back up, however, and she is noticing more half-million-dollar sales. In Macomb Township, bidding wars among six or more buyers are common, said Mike Bobbitt, an agent with Century 21 AAA North. The agency sold 48 homes for $10 million total last month.

“Prices are going through the roof, but the (appraisals) haven’t caught up to what the sellers want,” he said.

It’s a different story in much of Detroit. Despite pockets of success in downtown and Midtown, some residents, including Gaston Nash, said ending decades of decline will be a challenge.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Nash, a Detroit native who left the city for college and moved back in 2010 after about 10 years.

“The PR campaign has been so bad for so long. If I tell you you are ugly for 20 years, you are going to think you are ugly, and everyone else is going to think you are. It’s hard to reverse the stigma you’ve put on the city.”

Duggan cited the interest generated from the Detroit Land Bank auctions selling viable but vacant homes the city owns in Boston Edison, East English Village and other key neighborhoods. More than 6,000 bidders have registered for the sales.

Maggie Desantis, president of the Warren Conner Development Corp., said she isn’t fazed by the population decline. She’s part of the Lower Eastside Action Plan that has focused on bolstering neighborhoods surrounded by green recreational spaces and areas for new green ventures, like urban farms.

“I have been saying for quite some time that I expect that over the next several years Detroit can be a great, fabulous, spacious clean city of 600,000 and I was fine with that,” Desantis wrote in an email.

Detroit’s dip below 700,000 is no surprise. Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr has been using figures closer to 688,000 for months.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments is more pessimistic, pegging Detroit’s population at closer to 661,000 residents. Xuan Liu, the group’s manager of data analysis, doesn’t see the city bottoming out until 2030, when he predicts population will decline to 610,000.

The losses have slowed since 2005 through 2008 when the average monthly net migration was a loss of 2,009, Liu said.

The census estimates that Detroit’s population fell by 9,881 in 2013. That’s up from 4,702 in 2012.

Experts, including Metzger, cautioned the numbers are estimates. The census uses new housing permits and demolitions, and that may not be the best methodology in Detroit, which is amid a blitz to raze thousands of vacant structures.

“You take these estimates with several grains of salt,” Metzger said. “I think we are slowly stabilizing. (But) I think we still will drop.”

Despite Detroit’s loss, the city didn’t lose any ground in its spot as the 18th largest city in the nation. The city is bookended by two Texas cities, Fort Worth with 792,727 and El Paso at 674,433.

Above: A new home is for sale in Lyon Township, where population grew 6 ... (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Left: Housing prices have rebounded in many areas, but remain flat in ... (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)