Detroit mayor discusses plans for urban improvement

Wednesday, May 31, 2017 - 10:07pm

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks about his new urban-planning strategy during his keynote address.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks about his new urban-planning strategy during his keynote address. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Kevin Biglin


This article is part of the Daily's ongoing coverage of the Mackinac Policy Conference. Follow staff reporter Kevin Biglin on Twitter and check the site for more updates.

In his Wednesday evening keynote address at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan talked about housing history in Detroit and about his new urban planning strategy, which aims to spread affordable housing units across all areas of the city.

He posed the question, “What kind of a city do we want to be?” He said Detroit is in its first period of growth in over 50 years and every urban planning measure taken by the government, business leaders and citizens matters.

Duggan said the current urban planning strategy is defined by the slogan “One City. For all of us.” This means having people of all backgrounds living and working with each other in all neighborhoods of the city.

Success for Duggan is making sure everyone currently in the city can stay there while having more people move in. He said he favors the growth of areas with incoming immigrant populations as well as keeping young talent in the city.

“We’re pro-immigration,” Duggan said. “We want all our talent to stay in the city. We believe deeply this city is going to be welcoming to everybody. But we’re not going to move out Detroiters so other people can move in.”

Duggan said under the Federal Housing Administration’s unfair policy of “redlining” during the World War II era and beyond, several neighborhoods in the city became segregated. The policy made it so low-income minority groups were unable to receive loans to pay for houses in “desirable” communities.

“Urban redevelopment in America has historically across the country been about removing the poor,” Duggan said. “In Detroit, you have to go back to what happened before World War II. The caucasians coming from the South could live anywhere in the city. But the African Americans were confined to these neighborhoods. The way Detroit looks today is directly rooted in planning decisions that the leaders of this community made in the 1940s and the 1950s. That was the last period of growth in Detroit. Many of those decisions were rooted in racial discrimination.”

Duggan revealed eight principles the city will follow to achieve redevelopment, including allowing people of all incomes in any neighborhood to fight economic segregation and not supporting development if it displaces current Detroit residents, among others.

The mayor said the city won’t give tax breaks to developers who displace citizens in affordable housing. Instead, he is trying to work out deals with them to make space for such housing.

“We sat down with the Roxbury Group, worked out a deal, they bought the building, we gave them some support and they guaranteed thirty years of affordable housing,” Duggan said. “We can do this. And we can keep people downtown.”

On the topic of economic segregation, Duggan said the city will not help finance any housing development unless they allocate at least 20 percent to being affordable units. The mayor turned to successes of this policy with the Strathmore apartments in midtown. They were renovated over the last three years and now offer 40 percent of their units to lower-income renters.

“I’ve got 20 separate projects across the downtown and midtown area with 1,000 guaranteed affordable units,” Duggan said. “Instead of being stuck over here in six towers, with the poor in one place, and everybody else somewhere else, we spread the affordable housing across downtown and midtown because this is what we believe as a city.”

Another principle for Duggan over the past three years has been blight removal. While restoring as many houses as possible and removing those deemed unsafe, Detroit has been able to increase property values.

“The homesale prices are up 50 percent,” Duggan said. “If you listen to the media, you would think it’s in downtown and midtown, and nothing’s happening in the neighborhoods. In the neighborhoods, they know that the great majority of the neighborhoods have seen home improvements of more than 50 percent in the property values.”

The city is removing urban blight at an unprecedented rate, with 4,000 houses being torn down per year, which is four times faster than any other U.S. city. Duggan said 1,500 formerly vacant houses are now fully restored and another 1,500 are in the process of rehabilitation.

“People thought Detroit had no future,” Duggan said. “When you take out the burned down houses on the block, people will buy the other houses.”

Over the next two years under a program called Border Brigades, Duggan said 5,000 more houses will be rehabilitated, 9,000 demolished and 11,000 boarded up until they can be worked on.

“We are going to go through and board up every house,” Duggan said.

Another goal is building neighborhoods of density in order for citizens to get their daily needs within walking distance of their homes. He said it’s all about building “walkable” communities in neighborhoods such as Fitzgerald, where 100 houses are being restored and 300 vacant lots are being turned into parks. The second phase, he said, will work on building commercial areas as well as streetscapes.

“We’re not going to compete with the suburbs building duplicate subdivisions,” Duggan said. “But what if we build neighborhoods where there is so much density, that your daily needs can be met within walking distance of your home. The city owns all the vacant lots. We’re going to clear them and create a park right in the middle of the area.”

Duggan wishes to see a reversal of history and hopes his policies can foster the growth of neighborhoods built upon equity and inclusiveness.

“There is going to be a lot of conversation in Detroit about equity and inclusiveness,” Duggan said.