In the last 20 years, the population of Detroit has shrunk dramatically, causing concern among many cities about gentrification, which is the process by which higher income individuals occupy low-income urban areas, raising prices forcing residents to leave their homes and relocate.
Wednesday night at Weill Hall, a panel of urban planning experts and a city official discussed the definition of gentrification and the effects it has on Detroit.
About 60 students and faculty attended the event, sponsored by the Detroit Partnership, a student organization advocating education and service in the city.
State Rep. John Olumba spoke at the panel and discussed his experiences representing Detroit.
Olumba said the traditional definition of gentrification sometimes overlooks the social factors involved in such movements.
“It’s OK to have a hard and fast definition of (gentrification),” Olumba said. “You should all understand that those definitions don’t always work.”
At various points during the panel, Olumba referred to gentrification as “disenfranchisement,” “injustice” and “starvation” — demonstrating the complex social, economic and political issues involved in such a discussion. Olumba blamed the city’s government for many of the current issues facing the metropolis.
“People are being starved of resources and there are clearly resources out there to improve people’s livelihood,” Olumba said. “That’s what I would call gentrification — intentional moves by the government to starve out certain groups of people.”
Olumba pointed to Daniel Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans, who moved the company’s employees to Detroit, as one of the perpetrators of injustice in the city, claiming the company used confusing loan offers to drive individuals into bankruptcy. Olumba alleged that Gilbert facilitated the purchase of large numbers of foreclosed homes in Detroit after the occupants were forced out.
“Companies like Quicken Loans came into these areas — where people were ignorant about mortgage practices — and they kept mailing them over and over and calling them,” Olumba said. “They’re harassing these people, getting them to put their houses up for collateral — houses that are paid off.”
Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning, agreed that predatory lending practices by financial corporations led to many of the current housing issues. These foreclosures are “extremely disruptive to the city” because they tend to cause a cascading effect within communities.
“You introduce plight into a neighborhood,” Dewar said in the panel. “Neighbors begin to lose confidence and stop investing in their homes, quite understandably, and people begin to leave.”
However, Dewar said, gentrification is usually indicated by spikes in rent for low-income communities, which has not yet been observed in Detroit. She pointed out that Gilbert has primarily been purchasing property downtown, not in low-income communities.
Meagan Elliott, an Architecture and Urban Planning student on the panel, said the nature of gentrification makes it hard to define in many situations. In complex urban environments, many different factors can affect population movement.
“Gentrification can mean anything from pushing residents out to segregation of populations in the city to … redevelopment work,” she said.
Elliott said when people move to the city the political discussions often take on a racial basis, regardless of other factors involved.
“(Gentrification) is often a coded way of talking about race politics and racism,” Elliott said. “Detroit is the fourth most segregated city in the nation.”
During the open discussion, Michael Canter, an Architecture and Urban Planning student, suggested some of the potential benefits of gentrification for Detroit.
“Detroit can use a little bit of gentrification … the population has hollowed out so much,” Canter said. “They need some higher income people to move in to pay taxes so those city services can better be displayed through the rest of the city.”
Canter added that gentrification and race are often analyzed together, which can be misleading in some cases. Although race is often seen as a factor in gentrification, the process can occur in any area, no matter the population demographics.
“Gentrification is not black versus white — it’s not meant to be a racial term,” Canter said. “It’s sometimes taken that way because of the process that goes on.”
The city of Indianapolis, which faced similar population issues in the 1970s, alleviated many of its issues through massive government consolidation. Though Canter said this process would not work in Detroit, he suggested that other similar solutions should be explored.
LSA junior Samantha Edwards, education director of the Detroit Partnership, said the organization holds similar campus education events each semester to promote multiculturalism and social justice.
“We came up with the topic of gentrification because … I don’t feel much is known about it within the University,” Edwards said. “We had a nice diverse panel that offered very different views of gentrification, and I think people were able to learn and gain new perspective.”