Population slide slows in Detroit

Christine Ferretti, Nicquel Terry, and Christine MacDonald

Detroit — The city’s population loss has slowed to its lowest pace in decades, according to new U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Thursday, but remains short of Mayor Mike Duggan’s expectation the city would be growing by the end of his first term.

The newest figures released show Detroit dropping to the 23rd largest in the nation, bypassed by Washington, D.C., and Boston. Detroit’s population was 672,795 as of last summer, a loss of 3,541 residents. The decline is nearly the same as the previous year’s loss of 3,573.

The Duggan administration stressed in advance of Thursday’s figures that the estimated data from July 1, 2016, is nearly a year old and things are “trending in the right direction.”

Alexis Wiley, the mayor’s chief of staff, noted the decline last year was among the city’s lowest in more than a half-century and Detroit is seeing growth.

“Under the mayor’s tenure, we saw the lowest decline in 60 years,” Wiley told The News. “... On top of that, the census data is always lagging a year behind.”

Wiley pointed to hook-up data from DTE Energy Co. that showed an increase of 3,000 residential accounts in Detroit between March 2016 and March 2017. She also noted a survey this month by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments that showed Detroit was leading the region in residential construction. The city had 1,098 new residential units permitted, primarily apartments and lofts, the study noted, followed by Ann Arbor with 545 units, and Macomb Township with 516 units.

“That tells us that there’s growth,” Wiley said, adding she believes the mayor is “still in line with what he said” about stemming the exodus from the city.

“Of course, growing the population has been a major focus for us. People are pleased with what the mayor is doing,” Wiley said. “We’ve done a lot, but know there’s still a lot more to be done and we look forward to doing it.”

The mayor, who is in his final year of his first term and is seeking re-election, could still meet his growth expectation for his first term when figures are released next year. Duggan took office Jan. 1, 2014 when Detroit’s population was around 680,000.

Detroit’s losses in 2016 were smaller than three other cities nationwide: Chicago lost 8,638, Baltimore lost 6,738 and Milwaukee lost 4,366.

Researchers said they are cautious about concluding too much from year-to-year changes. But say it’s continued good news that Detroit’s decline is the smallest in decades. In 2014, the loss was 9,693.

“From 2000 to 2010, the city was losing more than 23,700 per year on average,” said Xuan Liu, manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. “Now it’s about 3,500, according to Census Bureau’s estimates. The pace of population loss is slowing down significantly. It’s moving in the right direction.”

Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, had predicted an increase this year because of the pace of new development and other quality of life improvements. He’s now saying next year will likely be a gain.

“There will be a lot more housing units that come on board” by this summer, he said.

Experts caution the numbers are estimates. The census uses new housing permits and demolitions, and that may not be the best approach in Detroit, which is amid a blitz to raze thousands of vacant structures. Metzger said he has issues with how the Census calculates its estimates but doesn't doubt there was a decline in Detroit last year.

Duggan’s most high-profile election challenger, Coleman A. Young II, argued if Duggan can’t get the population loss under control as he promised, “he shouldn’t be mayor.”

“By his own admission, he should step aside,” Young said. “As far as population is concerned, he cannot get things under control. He should not be the mayor.”

Young contends Duggan is “clueless” about what’s going on in Detroit neighborhoods. The census findings, he said, show the city needs to be doing more for its neighborhoods, improving safety, creating jobs and making car insurance affordable.

“The question we have to ask ourselves right now is are people staying because of the economic development going on throughout the city or are people staying because they can’t afford to leave,” said Young, adding almost half of the city is living in poverty. “We are in a city where people can’t afford to leave these neighborhoods.”

Wiley countered Detroit’s population losses have slowed under Duggan. Ultimately, she said, it’s in the hands of voters.

“At the end of the day, it won’t be Sen. Young that decides whether Mayor Duggan is given a second term,” she said. “It’s going to be decided by Detroit voters.”

Detroit resident Victor Robinson said he believes families are leaving Detroit because of a lack of resources in many neighborhoods.

Educational programs, afterschool activities, police presence and public transportation options are limited in the city, Robinson said. And the growth of downtown isn’t enough to offset the residents leaving other parts of the city, said Robinson, 28.

“Why would you want to stay in a neighborhood when schools are really the pillar of the community?” said Robinson, who ran for the Detroit’s school board last year. “Until we fully stock our communities and neighborhoods with resources, we will probably continue to see a population decrease.”

Detroit resident Willie Dickerson, 73, said the city needs to focus more on building quality housing instead of demolishing structures and leaving vacant land.

“When someone wants to move into my neighborhood, my neighborhood won’t grow because I don’t have anywhere to put them,” said Dickerson, president of the Pride Area Community Council. “We don’t want low-income housing. We want quality homes, quality jobs, quality education, quality stores and businesses in the area so that you can shop. Without that, you can’t survive anyway so your best bet is to leave.”

Meanwhile, Metro Detroit still ranks 14th among the nation’s metropolitan areas, with its population of 4.3 million in the six counties of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston, St. Clair and Lapeer.

The fastest growing communities in Metro Detroit continued to be Lyon Township, at 19,027, Washington Township, at 27,297 and Oakland Township, at 18,868.

In West Michigan, Allendale Township gained 1,561 residents last year bringing its total population to 25,323.

Township Supervisor Adam Elenbaas attributes the growth to more families and young professionals wanting a “small-town feel” where they can still commute to a nearby big city, such as Grand Rapids, for work.

Elenbaas said the township also has good schools and new housing developments being built in recent years.

“We still very much have that wholesome family environment,” Elenbaas said.

Flint’s population, at 97,386, also declined about the same amount in 2016, a drop of 754 in 2016.