Peter J. Hammer

Elections are here, but the issues real Detroiters care about get little attention from the candidates or the media. There are a handful of concerns Detroiters want their elected officials to address, like frank discussions about racial justice, or economic development that directly benefits them and development agreements that can be enforced by a real Community Benefits Ordinance. Detroiters want candidates who care about the mass displacement of other Detroiters from water shutoffs and tax foreclosures; they want substantial investment in DDOT and more busses, not a Q-Line that serves only the richest and most-developed part of the city. Real Detroiters feel neglected and left behind as they read headlines telling them how great everything is getting.

Federal Judge Damon J. Keith constantly stresses the fundamental importance of the right to vote. Last fall, he reminded the whole country of the importance of political participation in a powerful dissent in a voter suppression case. He provided a photo and biography of every martyr of the Civil Rights Movement, reminding us all how people have fought and died for the basic right to vote.

But elections are the only tool we have to hold elected officials accountable. In the coming weeks, voters should be asking candidates the hard questions, and they should stand for economic development being a matter of racial justice, because the tale of two cities is real and anyone who travels around the city knows it. Voters need to keep asking: Who benefits, who pays, and who decides? What will candidates do to ensure the benefits of development are shared by all Detroiters? What specific actions will they take to develop the neighborhoods?

Last year, community groups put Proposal A on the ballot – a real Community Benefits Ordinance. They had very little money to spend, especially in contrast to the millions of dollars in dark money that flooded in to support Proposal B, a faux Community Benefits Ordinance.  Proposal B only applies to very large deals, so only a handful of projects have fallen within its scope.

Proposal B’s poor implementation to date shows deep structural flaws in its design. Insufficient time and process is afforded to ensure meaningful community participation, and power is one-sided in the process, stacked in favor of the developer. The agreements are also unenforceable, leaving communities with little recourse if developers violate the agreement. What changes will candidates make to Proposal B to provide meaningful community engagement to ensure communities see legally binding benefits? What will they do to ensure the law applies to the full range of deals that really matter?

Mass displacement of historic residence has also become “business as usual” in Detroit.  Every day, Detroiters are being pushed out of the city by water shutoffs, tax foreclosures and gentrification. This displacement amounts to a humanitarian crisis, yet no action is taking place.  Most candidates aren’t even talking about displacement as a critical election issue. What steps will candidates take to ensure water affordability?  What will they do to keep people in their homes?  What are their plans for housing affordability?

Beyond that, many Detroiters do not have access to a car and must rely on public transportation. City busses are often late, in poor condition and unreliable. People who own a car must pay outrageously high rates for auto insurance. Effective regional transportation is, at best, a distant dream. What will candidates do to improve DDOT service? What steps will they take to ensure lower and more equitable car insurance rates in Detroit? What will the next mayor do to fight for economic and racial justice at the regional level?

Detroit faces profound issues of social, economic and racial justice. Detroit also consists of an electorate that rightfully feels neglected, alienated and disenfranchised. Deep frustration is understandable, but that same frustration is being manipulated by those in power pushing an agenda of neglect, abandonment and unequal development in the neighborhoods.

Real Detroiters must be heard. Real Detroiters must demand real development that benefits real people.

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