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Opinion: Neighborhood change in Detroit not due to gentrification

Alan Mallach

Is gentrification taking place in Detroit? Yes. But before we explore that question further, I’d like to tell a very different story. It’s a story that a lot of Detroiters intuitively know, but perhaps don’t think about as much as they might.

Back in 2000, Detroit was struggling in many ways, but a lot of middle-income people lived in the city, and most of them lived in middle-class neighborhoods. Most of Detroit west of Livernois, and big chunks along the city’s northern and eastern perimeter were solidly working-class and middle-class neighborhoods.

Mallach writes: "There is no upsideto neighborhood decline, the bleeding of family wealth, the deterioration in housing and quality of life. "

About half of Detroit’s residents lived in those neighborhoods, and nearly two-thirds of the city’s homeowners. They were the city’s backbone. They were schoolteachers and factory workers, civil servants and storekeepers. They weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor. These neighborhoods had their problems – few neighborhoods don’t – but for the most part they managed them. While many of Detroit’s inner neighborhoods had hollowed out, these areas hadn’t.

Mallach writes: "There is no upsideto neighborhood decline, the bleeding of family wealth, the deterioration in housing and quality of life. "

They were largely African American neighborhoods. As Detroit’s white families fled to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of strong, striving black families moved into these neighborhoods, made them their own and kept them vital and healthy for years. They were fiercely proud of Detroit and of their neighborhoods.

Mallach writes: " If we think of gentrification as affluent people moving in, supplanting a lower-income population and pushing up sales prices and rents, there are few areas in Detroit where that’s happening."

Since 2000, though, something has happened to these neighborhoods. They have been hit by something close to a perfect storm. Declining public services, loss of public safety, problem-ridden schools, outrageous tax burdens, and the triple whammy of subprime loans, mortgage foreclosures and tax foreclosures, coupled with the flight of tens of thousands of black middle class families for the suburbs or beyond, have sent dozens of Detroit neighborhoods into a tailspin.

One statistic tells the story in a nutshell. In 2000, there were over 100,000 African American families in Detroit who earned $40,000 or more. In 2016, after adjusting for inflation, there were only 44,000. The numbers have inched back up a little since hitting rock-bottom around 2011, but just barely. While not all of those families may have left – some people passed and others lost income – it’s a safe bet that most did.

Bagley is a neighborhood of handsome, mostly brick houses on tree-lined streets north of McNichols and west of Livernois. In 2000, it was a solid middle class community. Four out of five families owned their own homes, the poverty rate was below the national average, and vacant houses were a rarity. Since then, the neighborhood’s poverty rate has skyrocketed to 30% — double the national average. The number of vacant houses has gone from under 200 to over 800 and the number of homeowners has dropped by 700 or roughly one-quarter.

Bagley may be starting to stabilize, but it’s still in trouble. And it’s far from the most troubled of dozens of neighborhoods across the city of Detroit that have seen their long-time stability and quality of life decline, while thousands of homeowners have seen their home equity – often their only valuable asset – decline or disappear entirely, a loss of billions of dollars of wealth to Detroit’s African American community.

Things have become a little better recently. City government has focused more on these neighborhoods. A few areas like East English Village seem to be snapping out of decline. But despite the improvement in public services and the long-overdue reduction in property tax burdens that have taken place in recent years, as many as one-third of all of Detroit’s neighborhoods are on the knife edge of decline. Most of the rest of the city’s neighborhoods are heavily disinvested, and despite the efforts of residents working tirelessly to keep them afloat, have more vacant lots and houses than occupied ones.

This is the context of gentrification in Detroit. If we think of gentrification as affluent people moving in, supplanting a lower-income population and pushing up sales prices and rents, there are few areas in Detroit where that’s happening. One can point to the Cass Corridor, Corktown, perhaps Woodbridge, and, of course downtown, where hundreds of young people have moved into former office buildings Dan Gilbert has turned into apartments. Some people have been displaced from apartment buildings in downtown and the Cass Corridor, and they need better protections than they’ve had so far. But when one looks at gentrification in Detroit, it’s about very small areas and very small numbers of people compared to the vast swaths of the city that are on a downward path.

Detroit is not being over-run by affluent white millennials. Since 2010, Detroit has seen an increase of 8,000 in the number of people 25 to 34 with a college degree living in the city. That’s a change after the steady decline of this group up to 2010, but it’s small compared to Pittsburgh (15,000), Baltimore (24,000), Philadelphia (44,000) and many other cities. And it’s especially modest compared to the impression one might get from the media that every young hipster in the United States is on his or her way to Detroit.

Demand may be growing, but it’s growing slowly. With almost all the influx being young single people and childless couples, most of that demand will go into Midtown and downtown. Future gentrification elsewhere is likely to be slow and incremental, affecting mainly blocks right next to the ones that are already gentrified.

None of this means one should ignore gentrification. Protections need to be put in place for low-income families who may be displaced by developers, particularly renters, who get no benefit from rising house prices. Steps should be taken to preserve affordable housing in areas where prices are rising, and to help low-income homeowners fix up their homes, so they can stay and benefit from the changes in their neighborhoods. But Detroit can also gain from a more economically diverse population, from appreciation of woefully undervalued houses, and from the investment that comes from neighborhood revival. And in a city that has little more than a third of its one-time population, there’s room for everyone.

There is no upside, though, to neighborhood decline, the bleeding of family wealth, the deterioration in housing conditions and quality of life, and the loss of the middle class, all of which are afflicting far more of Detroit than is likely to be gentrified in the foreseeable future. And even with a shiny new downtown, what kind of a city will Detroit be without strong neighborhoods, a healthy middle class, families buying homes, raising children, and engaging in their community?

Rebuilding that Detroit, while lifting Detroit’s struggling low-income people out of poverty, is the central challenge facing the city. This is where everyone who cares about the future of the city – not just city government, but advocates, civic organizations, institutions and businesses – should be redoubling their efforts and commitment.

Alan Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington D.C. and the author of "The Divided City: Poverty and Prosperity in Urban America."