Essay: Detroit Can Beat the Gentrification Game

It won’t be easy, but the city can be a national model for inclusive economic redevelopment


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New money comes in; old people move out. It’s the ebb and flow of development. Brooklyn, San Francisco, Atlanta, and now, finally, Detroit.

The allure of suburban cul-de-sacs is waning as millennials yearn for the diversity and culture of dense urban cores. 

Now, less encumbered by the stigma of industry, racial tension, or anti-regionalism, Detroit has become a target for redevelopment and fresh energy. With that interest comes the specter of gentrification. It’s on the tips of every tongue, from neighborhood activists to developers. Some stoke fire-and-brimstone scenarios; others try to assuage fears by pointing to benefits of the changing economic landscape. 

“Sure,” they say. “With those changes come a few casualties. Senior citizen housing, low-income families, and, of course, homeless people have to go. But that’s for the greater good, right?”

Maybe not.

For years organizations, block clubs, and committees have waged hyper-localized campaigns to make their communities livable and desirable. Whether it’s community organizations like Grandmont Rosedale Development Corp. or the well-funded and powerful — some might say too powerful — Midtown Detroit Inc., many have tried to initiate economic corridors of opportunity. The Downtown Detroit Partnership worked for years, in different incarnations, to make “Financial District” more than a moniker. 

Nothing kicked the change engine into overdrive quite like Dan Gilbert’s investing in 90 buildings and the PR engine his organization used to elevate Detroit’s “comeback” story. Chicken-and-egg “do we need people or jobs first?” questions seemed gone in one fell swoop. He brought in higher-paying jobs, subsidized workers’ living options, and programmed activities to create the skeleton of a hip, trendy city.

Others followed suit. New companies, unique bars, restaurants, and overpriced, nonrenovated lofts began to hit the market. Long-vacant buildings became $100,000-plus industrial-styled “hipster” pads.

Between 2011 and 2016, rent prices downtown and Midtown have gone from an average of the mid-$700s to over $1,100 — and climbing. This despite the city’s poverty rate of nearly 40 percent. 

In the past five years, even the first waves of “new Detroiters” capitalizing on low prices and inspiring urban decay have been priced out of their artist bunkers to make way for a new class of imports. In 2014 CNN reported some stories of Detroit displacement. One was a young designer and another a 30-year, long-term resident of her building, which is being renovated and re-marketed. 

The combination of corporate subsidies and landlords wanting more from their properties has created a perfect storm. But Detroit’s housing story is much more complicated. As soon as you leave the ivory walls of “Greater Downtown,” home prices drop precipitously. In far-flung corners of the city, you find rentals in the $400s. Beautiful brick houses and multi-family units are sold for mere thousands. 

"Detroit grew as a flat sprawl instead of upward towers. That gives us a unique opportunity to beat gentrification here."

Widespread blight and higher crime rates have cratered the market. But more so, most property owners are simply catering to the market that they have — the low income.

Detroit has been victim to population drain for decades, often attributed to “white flight” and 1967’s civil unrest. Deeper research points to families following jobs as auto companies fled to the suburbs looking for land to expand. Some 50 years of misinformation, regional tension, and economic decline added up to make us the only city in America to peak well over, then fall below, 1 million residents. 

This city grew as a unique flat sprawl instead of upward towers. Now, we have more abandoned homes than any city. Blight might be the only thing with more screen time than gentrification these days. 

But that sprawl gives Detroit a unique opportunity where other places have failed. We could beat gentrification here. 

You can see the wheels starting to turn. Witness the Detroit Land Bank Authority’s efforts to streamline the process of auctioning homes. The Stay Midtown program is finally offering subsidies to longtime residents of redeveloping neighborhoods. 

High entry barriers to “the 7.2” — the rebranded imprint marketing downtown and Midtown without the stigma of the “other Detroit” — has forced development to leak into other neighborhoods. 

North End, West Village, and Jefferson/Chalmers benefit by being near, but not inside, those districts. The Detroit Economic Growth Corp. is creating more small business density in those neighborhoods with organizations like Motor City Match. Unique programs like NEIdeas (New Economy Initiative) fund entrepreneurs to create new narratives of how communities can support themselves. Work by Hajj Flemings’ Rebrand Detroit and David Alade’s Century Partners show how you can develop equity with a neighborhood, not just around it.

Even longstanding business chambers that once did everything in their power to position southeast Michigan as “despite Detroit” are starting to double down on Detroit. Conversations about neighborhood and workforce development are raised in their hallowed halls and economic forums.

Clearly, there’s more work to do. As a guy who once wrote an article called, “Why I Hate Detroit,” I have plenty of complaints. But I truly believe we can become the national model for inclusive economic redevelopment — if we seize this moment. If we zero in on outcomes, we can shift our focus — not just preservation of historic homes and neighborhood names, but preservation of longtime Detroiters: the core and heartbeat that kept Detroit afloat for years.

Partnership with the energy of a shifting demographic and, finally, the institutional support we’ve needed all along could change the gentrification game. 

With 142 square miles, there should be more than enough Detroit to go around. Let’s make sure we grow in a way that’s healthy and provides opportunity for everyone. This is a historical moment for our city. “How we beat gentrification” is the story I want to tell my kids about. 

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