Like the Big Bang, Metro Detroit expands away from its starting point, with no end in sight.
Since 1990, the region’s developed land has increased 42%, while its population has increased only 4%. The city of Detroit has been hit hardest by this sprawl. In the years following World War II, housing policies discriminated against Black Detroiters, spurring a housing boom for white residents relocating to the suburbs. By the 1960s, Time magazine wrote that “blight is creeping like a fungus through many of Detroit’s proud old neighborhoods.” By the 1980s, the city struggled to deal with large-scale arson like the hundreds of blazes set each Devil’s Night as its population declined. Today, still emerging from a municipal bankruptcy, Detroit seeks a solution to acres of vacant land and thousands of abandoned homes.
Detroit’s experienced decades-long disinvestment and population decline. Now the city’s voters are presented with Proposal N, a taxpayer-funded bond measure that would primarily pay to demolish vacant properties in the city.
The hope of blight-free neighborhoods is hard to turn down. But it should be clear that Proposal N isn’t a solution to blight. It is instead a cleanup of our region’s urban sprawl and discriminatory housing laws. Does Proposal N get to the root of our issues? Or as law professor Bernadette Atuahene told The Detroit News in July, is it more “like cleaning up the blood when the wound is not sutured”?
Consider Detroit’s vacant land. Some proponents of Proposal N argue that demolishing buildings alone will generate new investment. As Dan Gilbert has said, demolition provides the “hope and optimism” needed for redevelopment. But the city has had vacant land for decades, and comparatively little new construction outside of greater downtown. The idea that “if you clear it, they will build” hasn’t been backed up elsewhere, either. Research by Jason Hackworth shows that demolition-only policies have left 269 Rust Belt neighborhoods — including some in Detroit — segregated and value-depressed, often leading to further decline.
Eric Kehoe (Photo: Eric Kehoe)
The proposal includes $90 million to mothball homes for future rehab, but many potential homes are in value-depressed neighborhoods, making future redevelopment uncertain.
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While acres of developable land is available in Detroit, agricultural and undeveloped land like that in Livingston County is threatened. The county has experienced a population boom, increasing 22% since 2000, while its farmland has decreased 18%. Places like these are trying to incorporate agricultural and land preservation into their master plans in an attempt to preserve their rural landscape.
As land in Detroit neighborhoods continues to sit vacant, it’s overly optimistic to think that a focus on demolition will tip the scale for redevelopment. The underlying issue is a sprawling regional footprint that continues unabated. And that sprawl is linked to discrimination in our region.
Metro Detroit is one of the most segregated regions in the country, and it’s gotten that way through discriminatory housing policies. While existing infrastructure was abandoned in Detroit to build elsewhere, exclusionary zoning limited anything but more expensive single family housing on large lots. Black residents faced racist mortgage lending practices, with many suburbs and some Detroit neighborhoods explicitly promoting racial segregation in real estate laws. As white residents left the city limits, many Black homeowners stayed in Detroit, but their population wasn’t large enough to sustain a tax base designed for nearly 2 million people.
Others have voiced concerns with Proposal N, including the program’s ability to safely demolish buildings, its new tax on Detroiters when $600 million was wrongly taken through over-assessment, its ability to ensure jobs for residents, and its lack of an affordable housing mechanism.
But even if Proposal N passes, the regional challenges of sprawl and segregation will remain. They were present in the 1940s when Detroit’s decline began, and they have yet to be reconciled today.
Solving these issues will take regional cooperation unlike anything we’ve seen here before. To curb sprawl, municipalities could work together to create greenbelts or urban growth boundaries to limit the development of new land. Passing a regional transit plan would help shift the population’s reliance on cars, encouraging compact redevelopment along public transit corridors.
In a direct response to previously legal segregation, “The Color of Law” author Richard Rothstein suggests that Michigan and other states buy houses for sale at market value and sell them to Black applicants at a subsidized rate. The state could also require inclusionary zoning in every municipality, spreading out the availability of affordable housing regionally.
It isn’t just Detroit that has something to gain from this approach. Older suburbs are experiencing sagging tax revenues and crumbling infrastructure, while rural parts of the region want to grow revenues while not sacrificing their agricultural sense of place. A regional approach can guide investment toward the central city, preserve farms and undeveloped land, and provide increased access to housing and jobs. It could reverse our region’s extreme concentrations of wealth and poverty.
Proposal N asks that Detroiters pay taxes to clean up the devastating results of regional sprawl and historical racism. While history shows that demolition not a solution to Detroit’s abandonment, regionalism might be.
Eric Kehoe is an urban planner, former president of Preservation Detroit, and a founding member of Detroiters for Parking Reform.
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