Detroit’s white population rose by nearly 8,000 residents last year, the first significant increase since 1950, according to a Detroit News analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
The data, made public Wednesday, mark the first time census numbers have validated the perception that whites are returning to a city that is overwhelmingly black and one where the overall population continues to shrink.
Many local leaders contend halting Detroit’s population loss is crucial, and the new census data shows that policies to lure people back to the city may be helping stem the city’s decline.
“It verifies the energy you see in so many parts of Detroit and it’s great to hear,” said Kevin Boyle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian who studies the intersection of class, race, and politics in 20th-century America. The Northwestern University professor grew up on Detroit’s east side.
“The last thing I want to do is dampen the good news, but the problem is Detroit is still the poorest city in the U.S. The city hasn’t turned the corner until that changes,” Boyle said.
In Detroit, 39.3 percent are living below a poverty line of $24,008 for a family of four, the same census release showed.
The growth in whites is the first measurable gain since 1950 when the white population was 1.5 million, nearly 84 percent of the city, according to census data. The U.S. Census Bureau reported population statistics every 10 years until 2000, and later began yearly estimates.
The new data, paired with the recent estimates of small gains, suggests an increase of more than 14,000 whites since 2010. The latest data put the city’s black population at 79.1 percent and Latino population at 7.2 percent. Both groups saw small declines in 2014, which weren’t considered significant by experts.
“Detroit was at the extreme edge of white flight for so long, it’s certainly noteworthy,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “I wouldn’t want to overstate it, but, something is percolating and it’s worth seeing what’s propelling it.”
Whites in Detroit made up 10.2 percent of the city’s population last year, a jump of 1.3 percentage points from 2013. The numbers have been increasing since 2010, but experts say this was the first significant increase statistically.
“I think it’s a trend. I fully expect 2015 to be an even bigger jump,” said Kurt Metzger, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit.
The influx of whites helped slow Detroit’s population decline last year. Detroit’s population was at 680,281 in 2014, down an estimated 8,459 residents from 2013, according to the data. That’s a smaller loss than the previous year’s drop of 12,784.
“Detroit’s growth is going to be predicated on white population moving in,” Metzger said.
Metzger said for a Detroit recovery to succeed, “you have to get a more diverse population and a population with resources.”
The last time the white population was over 10 percent was in 2000, according to census data.
“The trend this year compared to previous years is a notable change,” said Xuan Liu, manager of data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. “This is the first year it’s actually significant. It is confirming what we have seen happening in the city. I think it is a real phenomenon.”
Liu believes they are young professionals and retirees moving to established neighborhoods like downtown and Midtown.
But some long-time Detroiters say recently arrived whites and new businesses are often wrongly portrayed as saviors of the city, and that so far, the comeback is wildly uneven.
Canadian Jason Yates and his wife Deveri Gifford moved from Toronto to Detroit in 2011, when the white couple opened up the Brooklyn Street Local eatery on Michigan Avenue in Corktown.
“Anyone who comes to Detroit and says they came to save it or fix it — that’s offensive to everybody. That’s just ridiculous,” Yates, 40, said. “We came because it was a great opportunity. The costs of things compared to Toronto is so much better here. We came because we had a sense that many long-time Detroiters would be welcoming, and they were,” Yates said.
Marissa Kresch, 26, moved to Detroit from the Oakland County suburbs in 2011 and bought a Corktown home with her husband last year. She notices the number of new residents seems to grow every year in Detroit.
“I used to live in Midtown and the number of young, mainly white, people hanging out there at night seems to grow all the time,” she said. “And sometimes there are people standing in front of my house just taking pictures,” because Corktown is a historical neighborhood, she said. “That kind of makes me feel like a long-time Detroiter,” she said.
Corktown and Midtown are among the neighborhoods that have experienced a steady stream of development and support by public-private partnerships to lure residents. Some include financial incentives for people to relocate there.
The heavy focus on bringing residents to certain neighborhoods, potentially at the expense of others, has left some feeling that neighborhoods filled with longtime black Detroiters are being ignored.
“You are creating lopsided communities,” said Yusef Shakur, a community organizer with the group Restoring the Neighborhood back to the Hood. “You are putting all your wealth in Midtown, downtown ... Woodbridge.”
“It’s not creating an even playing field.”
The census data release comes at the same time that Wayne County is auctioning off a record number of tax foreclosures, nearly 28,000 properties. The vast majority are in Detroit. An estimated 8,000 are occupied homes, according to data company Loveland Technologies.
Nonprofit organizations say they are stretched thin trying to help people stay in their homes.
“I have been overwhelmed since January,” said Ted Phillips, executive director of the nonprofit United Community Housing Coalition.