Detroit's 70-year population decline continues; Duggan says city was undercounted

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city suffered a substantial drop in population in the decennial census, prompting a vow Thursday from Mayor Mike Duggan to challenge the number and get it adjusted upward.

Duggan had suggested Detroit would have experienced a leveling by now after annual counts showed a slowing decline from 2010, when the city's population was more than 713,000. But the U.S. Census Bureau put 2020's population tally at 639,111, a drop of 10.5% or almost 75,000 residents from a decade ago, according to data it released Thursday.

It's the seventh straight decade Detroit's population has declined since the census showed the city with nearly 1.85 million residents in 1950.

But Detroit remained Michigan's largest city, followed by Grand Rapids, which grew 5.8% to 188,040 residents. Warren remains the state's third-largest city.

Mollika Biernat, 40, of Detroit, left, and her family, from left, Alina Biernat, 6, Jay Biernat, 43, and Asher Biernat, 5, enjoy time at the Beach at Campus Martius on Thursday.

Detroit fell to the 27th largest city in the country, down three spots from No. 24 in 2010. Among the cities that surpassed Detroit were Oklahoma City, Boston, Portland and Las Vegas. The city ranked just ahead of Memphis, which had about 633,000 residents, and Baltimore with almost 587,000 residents. 

Much of Detroit's population shrinkage in the last decade came from the loss of Black residents. The latest census figures show the city, which was 77% African American in 2020, lost 16% of its Black residents from 2010. The number of Black Detroiters fell by more than 93,000, to just more than 493,000. That’s down from 586,000 10 years ago when the city was 83% Black.

In October, Duggan said he couldn't give an estimate of how many people were living in Detroit but said he believed the population showed growth.

Duggan spokesman John Roach declined a request by The Detroit News to interview the mayor Thursday.

The mayor's office issued a statement Thursday saying the latest figures are what he and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib predicted in October when "Detroit neighborhoods were being undercounted" and both said they were upset that the count was shut down a month before originally planned.  

Duggan noted census figures show Detroit has only 254,000 occupied households but DTE Energy reports there are nearly 280,000 residential households currently paying electric bills. 

"At a minimum, the census somehow failed to count 25,000 occupied houses with running electricity," Duggan said. "It appears the Census Bureau has undercounted Detroit’s population by at least 10%. We will be pursuing our legal remedies to get Detroit an accurate count."  

Tlaib, D-Detroit, did not respond to a request for comment.

Duggan said in October that concerns about the Detroit census began even before the process started when the U.S. Census Bureau cut its budget and did not open an office in the city, and instead focused on Detroit out of Chicago.

Ron Jarmin, acting director of the U.S. Census Bureau, said during a press conference that the bureau produced “reliable and usable statistics that we and the public expect.”

“While no census is perfect, we are confident today’s redistricting results meet our high data quality standards,” Jarmin said. “It is too early to speculate on undercounts or overcounts for any specific demographic group.”

Census data plays a key role in how $1.5 trillion in federal spending is distributed each year

Search our interactive database: How your Michigan community grew (or shrank) in the 2020 census

Duggan has made a point of being measured on whether Detroit’s population grows. He said in 2014 as he began his first term that he would “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."

He said as he began his second term in January 2018 that updated figures were expected that spring would show the city gained population in 2017, but that did not happen. 

When Duggan took office on Jan. 1, 2014, the city’s population was around 680,000.

Others raise concerns

Others shared the concerns of Duggan including former Detroit City Council member Sheila Cockrel, who said the numbers needed to be investigated but was comforted by population losses that appear to have shrunk.

"The rate at which people are leaving has slowed," Cockrel said. "That’s where we can take solace and hope this is the trend that can turn to not just slowing but increase in the actual population numbers."

In the 2010 census, Detroit lost 25% of its population from a decade earlier, falling from more than 950,000 residents in 2000 to about 713,000.

Reynolds Farley, a University of Michigan research scientist in the Population Studies Center of the Institute for Social Research, said the Census Bureau in June published an estimate of 665,369 for Detroit's population as of July 1, 2020. 

"How can that be consistent with an April 1 population of 639,111?" said Farley, who studies population and economic trends in Detroit. He said for the city to record more than 26,000 fewer people "is a bit of a surprise." 

Former Mayor Detroit Dave Bing questioned the 2010 census count after it put the city below 750,000 residents, a benchmark that qualifies for additional state and federal aid programs.

But the city did not proceed with the challenge because it lacked evidence, said Farley.

The Census Bureau likely will face protests from other cities besides Detroit.

If Detroit officials have information exceeding the count and linked to occupied homes, such as utility bills, they can protest to the bureau, he said. The city could present evidence and then the bureau will investigate, potentially leading to a census change.

"It's been done in the past," Farley said. 

'Detroit is Michigan'

Detroit needs to reverse its population decline by attracting more young people to grow its economic base and lead Michigan's prosperity, said Kurt Metzger, a demographer who is Pleasant Ridge's mayor. 

"Population indicates success," Metzger said. "Detroit is Michigan. How Detroit does will greatly influence how Michigan does. And you can't have a successful region without a successful central city. You can't find it anywhere in the country. Everybody has to realize that their success is predicated on Detroit's success."

Metzger said now it is more critical than ever for Detroit to grow, and regional officials must combine efforts to play a role.

"Time is running out," Metzger said. "Either we get this right in the next couple of years, or we might as well just hope fresh water will be our savior somewhere down the road."

The nation's 2020 census showed that Detroit's population dropped 10.5% from the 2010 count of 713,777 residents following a decade of revitalization efforts and attempts to reduce crime, improve services and attract more businesses. The last Census Bureau figures in 2019 estimated Detroit's population at 670,034 residents.

The 2020 count was conducted by mail, telephone and online. It was the first time that everyone could respond online.

But it occurred during the global coronavirus pandemic, impeding Detroit's army of outreach workers, Metzger said.

Detroit had a low percentage of residents who responded online to the census, which occurred at the beginning of the pandemic, said Metzger. Lack of access to the internet and trust in the government are among the reasons many residents might not have gone online to report their household population, he said.

"Because of that, Detroit had one of the lowest (online) response rates in the country of all the major cities," Metzger said.

Residents could mail in the census questionnaire and officials encouraged them to do so through door-to-door outreach.

The city also may have struggled with getting participation from its Latino and Middle Eastern communities due to the hostility toward immigrants by former President Donald Trump, Metzger said.

"Were they scared to fill out a questionnaire because of Trump's constant drumbeat against immigrants?" Metzger said.

Detroit's population has dropped 1.1 million people since 1950, with many residents moving to the Metro Detroit suburbs. It started with White residents leaving the city, then continued with Black and White residents, Metzger said.

The only other population loss in the last decade than African American residents came from those who identify as American Indian or Alaska native. In both 2010 and 2020, that race category represented less than 0.5% of Detroit’s population and 528 people who identify in those race categories left the city.

All other categories rose, including White residents rising 9%, to about 61,000 residents compared to just less than 56,000 in 2010. The census shows 9.5% of city residents are White, up from 8% in 2010. Also rising were residents identifying as Asian — up 33% from about 7,500 residents to more than 10,000 — and people identifying as two or more races — up 54% to almost 20,000 residents, or 3% of the city’s population, up from about 12,000 residents a decade ago.

There were slight gains among residents who identify as Hispanic or Latino, which make up 8% of Detroiters, as well as in people who identify as other race.

Kathryn Smith and Gary Ksiazek pose for a portrait at their home in Detroit on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. The couple moved from Ferndale to Detroit.

Among those who bucked the trend and moved to Detroit were Kathryn Smith and Gary Ksiazek, who had lived in Ferndale for 10 years. The couple began looking in Ferndale and Royal Oak for a new home five years ago when they outgrew their bungalow. They found a rehabbed 1890 home in Detroit near Little Caesars Arena and Comerica Park and moved in 2015. 

The home has big windows, a unique layout and is close to entertainment venues and restaurants where the Smiths can walk or bike. It is also less than a mile to Smith's work in advertising.

"We really like the location and the building itself and the lifestyle in general," said Smith, 43. "The reason why we were looking in Ferndale and Royal Oak is because we wanted walkability and to get to restaurants and movie theaters. We have that just as much and even more than Ferndale and Royal Oak. We have lots of selections and walkability and being able to hop on a bike. It's just been great."