Opinion: Now is not the time to turn on the leaders of Detroit’s recovery
The phoenix-like recovery of Detroit from the ashes of bankruptcy is one of the great success stories of American history, but it is not over. We are far from the finish line, and the highest risk of reversal is still in front of us. This is why recent attacks on the investments of Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert are so troubling and disappointing.
While some point to his success to date as an example of capitalist profiteering, the fact is that his investments in the city remain both risky and essential to ensuring we build a new Detroit for all of its citizens.
So when some question the motives of Gilbert’s investment in Detroit, or the propriety of building on the long-abandoned site of Hudson’s department store with the help of opportunity zone tax credits, I worry that we have become too cocky about our accomplishments.
Most investments downtown are unleveraged because they remain so risky. The commitment of private capital, like those of the Quicken Loans, Ford Motor Co., and the Ilitch companies, remain highly speculative. And of all of Detroit’s modern-day capitalist titans, no one shares as deep a commitment to Detroit’s neighborhoods and neighbors as Gilbert.
I know this firsthand from working with Gilbert as part of President Barack Obama’s Detroit Recovery Team. In 2013, when Gilbert's investment in the city was still below $1 billion — half of his current commitment — his focus in Washington was not on his investment portfolio; it was on Detroit’s struggling neighborhoods. He knew that without strong neighborhoods, downtown investment was both unsustainable and pointless.
This is why when Detroit’s leaders met with Obama, Gilbert was the one who pushed for a blight task force to address the proliferation of vacant and abandoned properties plaguing the city.
Experts from around the state and the country met every week in the Quicken Loans conference room to plot a strategy to end blight in Detroit’s neighborhoods. It was Gilbert who insisted that we commit ourselves to every neighborhood in the city, and we did.
The critical first step was to identify the exact location of each blighted property. When experts on this unprecedented task said they could do it in six months, Gilbert insisted on 60 days (we compromised on 90). When they said it would cost over $1 million, Gilbert wrote a personal check that day. Two months later, hundreds of volunteers and paid temporary employees had mapped and assessed over 378,000 properties.
Today, Gilbert and the Quicken Loans Community Fund has joined the fight against tax foreclosures, the leading cause of blight in Detroit. Just in the last three years, they have built an annual survey to connect all 60,000 Detroit families living in tax delinquent properties with exemptions and resources, and directly helped over 3,000 families apply for tax exemptions.
All Detroiters should be proud of what we have accomplished in the past six years. But we should also recall how impossible it seemed, and how long we have waited for it to happen. Now is not the time to turn on those who have risked so much to make it happen.
David M. Dworkin is president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, the nation’s oldest housing advocacy organization. A native Detroiter, he served on the Obama administration’s Detroit Recovery Team from 2013-16. His family has lived in Detroit for 150 years.