City lights continue to be an issue in Detroit. No matter how much effort is seemingly thrown at fixing them, half the city stays in darkness. Yet lighting is only a visible symptom of Detroit’s crumbling infrastructure. The same infrastructure problems that can be seen by Detroit’s citizens in broken lights exist below in the belly of the city’s networks.
Detroit is barely surviving on high cost, obsolete infrastructure that was constructed in its heyday to meet the needs of a million more people. Old infrastructure can be maintained and replaced but at increasing costs as time goes on (compare Detroit’s maintenance to maintaining an old car).
Detroit’s small population cannot continue to indefinitely maintain its large, failing infrastructure without increasing city taxes. Yet, Detroit taxes are already the fourth highest of any city in the nation, and 47% of the population is already not paying their property taxes. Many say they refuse to pay taxes because they are not getting the services that their infrastructure is supposed to support (a catch 22).
Without growing Detroit’s population, the city cannot repair its infrastructure, and infrastructure becomes another cause of spiraling city failure. A minimum population that is growing and paying taxes, therefore, is not only needed to manage growing city pension costs, but also to maintain the city’s infrastructure and to ultimately reduce infrastructure costs through reinvestment.
So, how does Detroit reverse the trend and grow its population? And since the city is already years into deficit spending, how does it accelerate growth to a minimum sustainable population? Millennials have been targeted as a group that will populate the downtown district. They have lost interest in owning homes and gentrification can create livability standards that will attract them. Yet, their increase will not be at a rate great enough to thwart the city’s deficits. Gentrification is not a solution to a citywide problem. Creating an attractive downtown might create a functioning commerce district but it does not impact choices to live in other parts of the city. Downtown reinvestment has been tried now for 40 years in Detroit without success.
Some Detroiters hope that that low cost citywide housing and a recovering America will combine to reverse the city’s exodus. Citywide, housing prices have precipitously dropped to the extent that they have slowed depopulation. Those wanting to leave Detroit cannot sell their houses for enough to leave, and low prices have brought some newcomers to Detroit.
Yet, crashing home prices are a horrible alternative for attracting population back into the city. Besides devastating Detroit’s citizens, falling housing prices devalue the city’s tax base that it needs to increase. While the fire sale of homes has brought balance to the population, the massive difference of home prices between Detroit and its suburbs is still not enough to bring people back.
If Detroit wants to save itself from fiscal suffocation, the city cannot hope that downtown reinvestment or housing price equilibrium will save it. Detroit must finally deal with the root causes that devastated the City’s population. For now that the city sits below a minimum population for recovery, only fixing its root causes of depopulation will help it to repopulate.
Certainly, loss of autos and ammo started the slide, and highways and FHA insurance provided the means of white flight. Detroit was dealt several suffocating blows that would cause its minimal sustainable population to drop from 1.8 million to perhaps 1.2 million from these two factors alone. But Detroit’s depopulation has been unlike any other city.
While Detroit’s suburbs were engaging in economic transformation along with the rest of the country, Detroit missed the opportunity in its midpoint of depopulation to bring in new innovators to change its business profile. Cities like Akron and Pittsburgh stopped their rustbelt bleeding through investment in new, job-based innovation and came back to life. Yet, key investors in the Detroit metro area instead sought reinvestment outside the city proper, choosing instead to invest in entertainment branding within the city. Sports and commerce brands are important to a City’s livability but these investments did not add enough to the city’s tax base to survive without adding businesses that could support a minimum population.
So, part of the city’s fall can be explained by a lack of restructuring the city to attract new business. Yet, other cities that failed in this mission simply stabilized at a smaller size without imploding as Detroit did. Detroit’s white flight, however, was greater than any other city. Detroit’s black population continued to grow from the 1970s until the 2000s, but the city’s white population dropped to 7.8%, leading the city’s drop in population from 1.8 million to 700,000.
Detroit has a unique history of racial prejudice due to its 20th century migration patterns and its development of institutional racism in response to its dramatic increase in Southern migration. Repeated efforts by many thoughtful civic leaders failed to turn the tide of how Detroit would repeatedly manage racial conflict. The result of years of missed opportunities to repair the city’s racial tensions resulted in a Detroit whose negatives now overwhelm its positives.
The average citizen that wants to raise their family in safety, to give their kids a decent education, to see their kids get a decent paying job, and to watch their children then settle down in town to raise their grandchildren, this average citizen simply could not see a way to continue his basic American dream in Detroit, and sought refuge outside the city.
Detroit became overwhelmed with crime. Violent crime expanded and now dots all parts of the city. Detroit’s schools have failed the city miserably. Half the city’s population is functionally illiterate and lacks the skills needed for the types of jobs that some see as the savior to city revitalization. Revitalization cannot ignore the base of Detroit’s citizenry or the root issues of education and crime will remain unresolved.
Jobs that could provide a living wage are not available to current residents. This broken pattern that causes city flight must now be reversed in a city that only graduates 22% of its kids and that has the highest crime in the country. Without vastly reducing crime and undertaking massive restructuring of the city’s schools to create successful outcomes, and without creating livable wages for the city’s high school graduates, no urban planning or investment will reverse the city’s loss of population.
Ok, so let’s get to work. Detroit can be the first city in the nation to reverse such a trend. Detroit MUST be the first city in the nation to reverse such a trend for its own survival. The institutional and structural impediments that have kept the City from struggling back must now be removed. Root causes of Detroit’s plight must now have bold solutions that attack root causes. A system-wide solution that supports all of Detroit’s citizenry must now be employed.