The recently released report from Detroit Future City, 139 Square Miles, is relatively brief, unsparingly to the point, and should be required reading for anyone who claims to want to honestly understand where Detroit is right now. I mean, where Detroit really is. Not the feel good hype about Detroit being ‘back’, and not the defeatist rhetoric that nothing good is happening beyond downtown.
Sometimes the truth hurts, but it also helps. Most importantly, the truth clarifies. And of all the things that Detroit Future City Executive Director Anika Goss Foster shared with me recently as she attempted to break down the report’s findings, the one observation that stood out to me above and beyond all others was this:
“This is the big headline for me; that economic inclusion is not just rhetoric. And I think that that’s really, really clear. That African Americans who are the majority of the population of Detroit, we need to make much more of a concerted effort for all of us to be able to participate. And that if African Americans are not participating in employment and small business opportunities, and educational achievement? Then that should be everybody’s problem. Anybody who cares about Detroit should be frustrated about African Americans not achieving to their fullest potential in Detroit.”
Because Detroit, despite all the things we might see happening, is still overwhelmingly black and poor with a population of 672,000. The bankruptcy may have cleared the decks of crippling debt, but it couldn’t do a thing to make Detroit less black and poor. And Detroit cannot succeed as a poor black city. Which also means not as a city catering to a minority of wealthy successful white folks.
Which brings us back to the purpose of the report which, essentially, is to provide sufficient ammunition to attack Detroit’s myriad problems, building blocks to help put the city back together again in a sustainable manner, and a compass to help navigate what lies ahead. Because although Goss-Foster makes it clear that the report explicitly and purposefully avoids offering policy prescriptions or anything approaching The Big Answer, the up-to-date information contained in 139 Square Miles is enough all by itself to help lay the foundation upon which to construct a more wholesome Detroit.
“Fifty-eight percent of Detroiters are cost-burdened. And of that number, 37% are spending more than 50% of their income on housing. If their income is already too low as it is, and there aren’t opportunities for jobs, they’re not really included in the marketplace. This is why we really have to focus on economic inclusion. Because it’s much, much bigger than just a jobs issue. It affects the housing market, and it affects neighborhood stability. …We have 65-70 percent of Detroiters that should qualify for some level of housing subsidy that are living without that subsidy.”
But then, as is the case with this roller coaster of a report, which whiplashes from high to low oftentimes at breakneck speed, “We are leading the region in housing permits, and that has created stabilization in neighborhoods that we have not seen in a very, very long time. This is not just for new home construction, but also rehab.
“That is an amazing story and I’m really excited about that.”
But along with housing comes the disparity in household income, which presents another problem. Household income “is really one of the most challenging areas, because it shows two major things; one, that too many Detroiters are receiving too low of an income. Our ratio of population to income is just too low.”
And not only are too many Detroiters receiving too low of an income, but they are too often commuting ridiculous distances – in some cases as much as 50 miles – to these jobs that aren’t paying enough. And since 25 percent of Detroiters don’t have cars, and since Detroit public transit is still nowhere near what it needs to be for a major metropolitan area, then it’s safe to say this presents a significant barrier to Detroit’s resurgence.
The other barrier is that only 20 % of Detroiters have an associate’s degree or higher. The report shows that just having an associate’s degree increases employability by 50%. Currently most Detroiters have little or no college experience.
And yet? Detroit’s overall rate of job growth is on the rise and is (believe it or not) leading the nation in rate of job growth.
Yes. Really. How is that possible, you ask?
“Who is working? And who is not working? That is really the clear challenge. One of the challenges that we’re finding is that with all of this new job growth, Detroiters are not participating at the same rate as others. So what in fact is probably happening is many of these new sectors are coming to town and bringing their own employees with them. Or they’re hiring from the region and people are not moving to Detroit.”
One group that is definitely moving to Detroit are young singles. The issue is what happens once they get married and decide to raise a family…
“Similar to other cities we have seen a definite spike in singles, and young singles, that are moving into the city. Which is a good thing because they’re living in the city, working in the city. Well, we don’t know for sure that they’re working in the city, but they’re definitely here,” said Goss-Foster.
“Where we’ve seen the decline that is a bit of a concern is households with children. We’re losing our families.”
According to the report, “since 2000, Detroit has seen the number of families with children decline by 43%. These households make up 26% of the city’s households, down from 34% in 2000.”
“There are other ‘hot market’ cities that are losing families such as San Francisco, Portland, that are losing families,” said Goss-Foster. “But considering our income and makeup, we need families to stabilize the makeup here.”
And speaking of income, the report notes that Detroit has an extremely high poverty rate with more than 40% of all Detroit residents and 57% of all children under 18 living below the federal poverty line of $24,339 for a family of four. Still, this doesn’t mean that extreme poverty should be the sole focus of any revitalization effort.
“There’s so much rhetoric about the two Detroits that we miss the important middle. And it’s not that we don’t want to focus on the two Detroits, but if we only focus on the very low income and what people don’t have, and trying to fix that, we will miss the opportunity to try to create pathways for wealth, which is very different than just low income programs and low income housing. And we will lose the opportunity to really attract the kind of income and employment opportunity that we can have so that everybody can participate.”