In an act of extreme philanthropy believed to be unprecedented anywhere in America, billionaire developer Dan Gilbert and his Gilbert Family Foundation and Rocket Community Fund pledged Thursday a $500 million over the coming decade as a direct gift to the City of Detroit.
Gilbert and his wife, Jennifer, along with their philanthropic management, will plot out targeted ways to spend the largesse to reduce poverty, help build generational wealth, and improve downtrodden, long-neglected urban areas. The gift is not an unrestricted lump sum for the city to do with as it pleases, but it nonetheless has the potential to transform a long-suffering, recently bankrupt city with seemingly intractable economic challenges.
“The money is there, it’s just ready to be targeted to any issue we think it should,” Dan Gilbert said. “We follow the philosophy that you can’t just put Kool-Aid in the ocean and expect to change the color of the water. It has to be targeted.”
The first step is a $15 million investment that will wipe out property tax debt for some 20,000 low-income homeowners who did not realize they should have been exempted from the taxes under the city’s Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program. The newly formed Detroit Tax Relief Fund will be administered by the Wayne Metro Community Action Agency. Folks who think they qualify for the relief can call 313-244-0274 or visit waynemetro.org/propertytax.
“This is the start of many additional initiatives,” said Quicken Loans CEO Jay Farner at a press conference at One Campus Martius, the Gilbert group of companies’ corporate headquarters. “We’re going to figure that out together with the citizens that we’re working with.”
The press event focused largely on the property tax relief plan. Mayor Mike Duggan beamed as he spoke of the Gilberts’ generosity and contributions. “With this extraordinary gift, we have a lot of folks with a lot of debt hanging over their heads,” he said.
Gilbert, who endured a stroke in May 2019 that has rendered his left side partially paralyzed, struggled to walk in one of his first media appearances since his hospitalization. Between that and COVID-19 lockdowns, Jennifer Gilbert says it was a chance to pause and consider how to help the community better. “When you’re on the gerbil wheel, you’re not necessarily having time to reflect on the past and thoughtfully and purposely think on the future,” she says. “The last two years have done that for us.”
Indeed, over the past year, as her husband focused on his recovery, Jennifer Gilbert roved the city holding meetings with neighborhood groups trying to gauge what could make the best use of a monumental donation.
“If we can provide a pathway for economic opportunity and mobility, we will begin to break down the long-standing barriers that have made it unnecessarily difficult for so many Detroiters for far too long,” said Jennifer Gilbert, who appeared along with her husband, co-founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures and owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. “We know it’s difficult enough in life to focus on education, employment, parenting let alone worrying about staying in your home. This has become personal for us. We find ourselves talking about these issues as a couple and as a family often.”
Of the $500 million, $350 million will come from the Gilbert Family Foundation and the rest from the Rocket Community Fund. It follows other Gilbert efforts to remove blighted homes and help reduce foreclosures in the city.
Gilbert, a fourth-generation Detroit native, moved the Quicken Loans headquarters from Livonia to downtown Detroit as a lynchpin for an ambitious redevelopment plan for downtown that has involved his Bedrock company buying more than 100 downtown properties. With some 17,000 employees in the city now, his companies are Detroit’s largest private employer.