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‘Living for the City’

NAACP, Institute report lists Detroit’s top challenges, links them to fighting sprawl

July 7, 2005 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Detroiters say rebuilding the city’s public transit system, once among the nation’s best, is a key to revitalizing their city, which 50 years ago had close to two million residents.

A study designed to forge stronger bonds between Michigan’s suburbs and inner cities says that Detroit residents see three major factors harming their quality of life: inadequate public transportation, a dearth of affordable housing, and entrenched racial tension.

The report, jointly published by the Detroit Branch NAACP and the Michigan Land Use Institute, says that addressing these three problems is essential not only to improving the quality of life for Detroit’s residents, but also to improving Michigan’s overall economy and quality of life. That echoes a theme former Michigan Governor William G. Milliken sounded last month at the Mackinac Regional Conference. “Those who believe that they can prosper adjacent to a failing Detroit are wrong," he said.

The report, Living for the City, is a result of the participation of the executive directors of the Detroit Branch and the Institute in a blue ribbon panel launched by Governor Jennifer M. Granholm in February 2003. Funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s People and Land program, Living for the City recommends steps for building better public transportation, facilitating more affordable housing in the city, and encouraging mixed-used neighborhoods that better integrate people from many walks of life.

Mindful that sprawling development patterns drain Michigan’s cities of their residents and resources while simultaneously paving over farms and forests, the Detroit Branch’s Heaster Wheeler and the Institute’s Hans Voss said that they hoped the report would help to bridge what is often an immense gap between city and suburbs.

“We hope that this report helps to make the Motor City a model for sustainable growth, livable communities, and a revitalized economy,” they said in a joint statement.

Were These Boots Made for Walking?
Fifty years ago, Detroit operated one of the nation’s largest municipally owned transit systems. Some residents can still recall a time when using the Woodward Avenue trolleys rarely required more  than a five-minutes wait.

Today, Detroiters like Doris Haynes say that, for the one-third of Detroit residents who have no car, getting to work can be a nightmare for those who depend on buses. Ms. Haynes said that, given the lack of reliable transit service between her home and her job, it is more sensible to walk 45 blocks to get to work each morning, and another 45 to get back home each night.

“My feet are a lot more reliable than the transit system,” observed Ms. Haynes. “If I leave my home at 8:00 a.m. I’ll get to work by 8:50 if I’m walking. But if I take the bus, I might get to work at 9:45. And that’s taking two buses. I just wish they would find a way to make it work.” 

Project researchers found that the mere mention of public transit in Detroit evokes strong reactions. Decades of wrangling about how to improve DDOT, the city’s ailing bus system, and better coordinate it with the suburbs’ SMART bus system have made it a wedge issue between the city and its suburbs.

Sprawl Fails to Provide Cheap Housing
Although Detroit’s size and long history would seem to guarantee a wide range of housing choices, Living for the City finds that most of those choices are too costly for much of the city’s working population, including many residents who have full-time jobs. According to a May 2003 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, the median price of a Detroit home was $156,000. A buyer needs an annual income of $48,621 to purchase that home, but this exceeds the average annual salaries of fire fighters ($39,740), licensed practical nurses ($38,670) and administrative assistants ($36,770).

These workers could likely afford Detroit’s average fair-market rent of $638 for a one-bedroom apartment or $771 for a two-bedroom unit. But even these prices are beyond the reach of pre-school teachers ($22,942), and bank tellers ($22,484), who cannot afford even the one-bedroom model.

“Detroit needs more affordable housing to help stabilize the living situations of low-income families,” said Linda Smith, director of U-SNAP-BAC, a non-profit housing development corporation in Detroit. “That would prevent families from moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, and provide a much healthier, more stable environment for raising children and building quality communities.”

The Ebony-Ivory Gap
Despite civil rights legislation, affirmative action programs, and a sizeable list of Detroit residents with remarkable histories in working for better race relations, Detroit and indeed the state of Michigan are the most segregated places in the nation. The gap between the increasingly black city of Detroit and its sprawling majority white suburbs continues to widen.

To illustrate how metro Detroit’s race problem leads to many misunderstandings between urbanites and suburbanites, the report looks at one issue that Lansing lawmakers attempted to deal with a year ago: Payday lending. The practice, which the National Association of Attorneys General has long opposed, targets poor people who live from paycheck to paycheck, have little or no savings, and, due to the sprawling development patterns that have exported many needed services from the city, live far from legitimate financial institutions. Payday lenders typically charge annual percentage rates that approach 400 per cent for two-week payday advances. This practice hits hard at Detroit, where roughly one-third of the city’s 375,000 households live on less than $25,000 per year.

During the 2004 session, the Detroit Branch strongly opposed a bill that would have granted existing payday lenders legitimacy through a new state regulatory process. Yet 12 state representatives from communities adjacent to Detroit in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne Counties, voted for it and, in fact, provided the state House’s exact winning margin. Three suburban Detroit senators also supported the measure. But after it passed both state chambers, Governor Granholm, a former attorney general, vetoed it.

The report also noted that the Detroit Branch has long scored legislators’ voting records on a range of proposals, including charter schools, public transportation, land banks, and community development. Last session, all Detroit legislators, 88 percent of whom are African American, received either “A” or “B” grades. But almost half of the legislators from Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties scored either a “D” or an “F”. A number of report participants emphasized that, of all the problems Detroit faces, race relations remains the most stubborn and the most crucial.

Looking Ahead
Paul Hillegonds, senior vice-president for corporate affairs and communications at DTE Energy, who directed Detroit Renaissance, Inc., after serving as a state lawmaker for many years, summed up the importance of the combined efforts of the Detroit Branch and the Institute this way: “Understanding the historic push outward from Michigan's cities and the challenge of revitalizing them is impossible unless we address race relations openly and honestly. I applaud the NAACP and Michigan Land Use Institute for encouraging a trust-building dialogue that enhances efforts to rebuild urban cores and foster regional cooperation."

In other words, Mr. Hillegonds said, fixing Michigan’s severe sprawl problem requires fixing Michigan’s severe race problem. 

Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Voss emphasized that basic realization in their opening, joint letter.

“Just as pianists must play their instrument’s black and white keys to make great music,” the two wrote, “so must America draw on her black and white citizens to make a great country. Our hopeful partnership aims to replace the unfortunate dearth of urban voices addressing land use issues with a new song that unifies city and countryside in ways that, even very recently, few would have thought possible.”

Charlene Crowell is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Lansing policy director. Reach her at Charlene@mlui.org. To read Living for the City in its entirety, click here.

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