Detroit’s Development: A Story of Gentrification

Dina Rosin (CMC ’20)

Gentrification is broadly considered the process in which a neighborhood increases in property values, as wealthier people move in, which consequently pushes lower-income residents out. Many consider gentrification to be very controversial. While some argue that it improves a city, making it safer and more economically sound, others argue that it is inhumane to essentially displace people based on their socio-economic status. This argument is made poignant by the fact that, in many cities, socio-economic status is highly correlated with race. Furthermore, gentrification tends to rid neighborhoods of their culture and history in exchange for trendier alternatives. High-end coffee shops and hotels do not simply appear, though; they are directly encouraged by government policies that incentivize and expedite gentrification. Specifically, in Detroit, Michigan, a city that filed for bankruptcy in 2013, the city government has created laws and policies that have directly led to the spread of gentrification in its downtown area. While these policies for city growth may seem neutral, the cost of Detroit’s development falls disproportionately on people of color and low-income residents.

Just a year after the city declared bankruptcy, the city of Detroit lowered property tax rates. While it may seem strange that Detroit would enact a policy that would decrease the revenue of the city by as much as $15 million annually, it is a tax policy purposefully designed to lure high earners into the city. These wealthy individuals would give the city revenue via taxation, whether it be property, income or retail taxation. Importantly, these individuals do not rely on government services, such as public transportation and health services. They are ideal residents for improving the city’s development because they contribute to tax revenue without utilizing the services they pay into. Dan Gilbert, the billionaire owner of Quicken Loans, along with Mike Ilitch, the wealthy owner of Little Caesars Pizza, have both bought the cheap real estate, in the hopes that these properties will become valuable. It is the government, however, that is ensuring that these will prove to be profitable investments. By continuing these incentives, the government increases the likelihood that more wealthy individuals and companies will place their roots in the city, which will make these areas more valuable.

The core of Detroit, known as “the 7.2,” consists of the downtown and Midtown areas. The city has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in public works projects in the 7.2. For example, the government approved a project to build a 5.5-mile strip along the riverfront in the 7.2, and a streetcar that only stretches 3.3 miles, both contained in this gentrifying core of the city. These public works programs are intended to “beautify” the city, making it more appealing to new investors and residents. In this way, the city government is creating policies and projects that benefit wealthy citizens and companies, instead of investing in public works projects that benefit lower-income communities.

Just blocks from this downtown core, neighborhoods are being denied necessary and basic maintenances and upgrades. For example, Jocelyn Harris, who lives six miles from downtown, lives in one of the only occupied houses on her block. The local park is often locked even when it is supposed to be open, and when a local school closed, residents petitioned to reopen the school as a community center. The city instead sold the school to a developer, leaving residents without a new school or a community center. While the city is investing exorbitant amounts on the wealthier parts of the city, it is failing to meet the basic needs of other parts. These failures often fall disproportionately on distinct communities.While Detroit is 83 percent black, in “nearly 70 percent of the grantees of nonprofits committed to revitalization are white,” according to Peter Moskowitz, the author of How to Kill a City. Thus, when the city fails to provide development programs for neighborhoods like Jocelyn’s, they are disproportionately favoring white, high-income communities over low-income, usually black, neighborhoods.

While gentrification may seem serendipitous or a result of free enterprise, in reality, it is often perpetuated by governmental policies. In Detroit, this phenomenon is certainly evident. The government’s interest in promoting the growth of the city systematically favors white, high- income communities and systematically ignores the needs of black, lower-income communities. As the programs gain success, this pattern is perpetuated. Those disenfranchised by these programs find it difficult to gain the political power or momentum needed to make changes. Running for office, or even going to city hall, costs time and money. It is incumbent on the city to hear the voices that are not benefitting from current policies and to consider these interests when crafting future development policies. Without this consideration, the development programs risk leaving an entire community behind.

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