Can These Neighborhoods Be Saved? More Thoughts from Detroit

In my last post, I described the picture in what I call Detroit’s ‘middle-ground’ neighborhoods. In recent decades, those neighborhoods, mainly single family homes, have housed the city’s solid working […]

In my last post, I described the picture in what I call Detroit’s ‘middle-ground’ neighborhoods. In recent decades, those neighborhoods, mainly single family homes, have housed the city’s solid working class and middle class families, and are now widely in demographic and market free fall. That's the reality, painful as it may be.

So, we need to ask two questions: Why is it happening? And is there anything that can be done about it?

The “why” is not that complicated. People look for fairly basic things in their communities. A house that meets their needs, and which maintains or increases its value over time. A healthy neighborhood where people maintain their homes, where more families are homeowners than not, and where their person and property are reasonably safe. A quality of life, measured in terms of attractive surroundings, decent schools and public services. Good public transit, a nice shopping district close by, and the like may not be critical, but are good extras.

When a house and a neighborhood no longer live up to those basic standards, it is a reasonable thing for people who can afford to do so to vote with their feet. No one can reasonably ask a family to continue to live without security, safety and a decent quality of life out of abstract loyalty to a city, or on behalf of some ideological principle.

If people voting with their feet is the principal reason for neighborhood decline, at least two other factors are at work as well in Detroit. First are the factors discouraging home buying. It is hard to sell people on buying a home in a market where prices seem to be on an inexorable downward spiral. It is even harder, when because of current mortgage practices and rules, the people who want to buy homes in Detroit—and they exist—find it all but impossible to get a mortgage to pay for it.

The second issue is the gap between overall demand and supply. Are there enough people and families looking for single family houses in areas like Rosedale or Bagley to absorb the supply, even if the areas were safer and mortgages more easily obtained? Between 2000 and 2010, the number of married-couple families with children—the “sweet spot” for home buying—in the three counties surrounding Detroit (Wayne, Oakland and Macomb) dropped by more than 50,000. Plus, child-rearing families are not the natural constituency for urban living in most parts of the country these days. That is one reason why downtowns—which draw singles and young couples—are doing so much better than many neighborhoods in so many American cities.

This is the context to the question: can these neighborhoods be saved? The problem is that limited demand is a reality, not just in Detroit but in most shrinking cities and their regions. There may not be enough demand—not just in the city but in the region as a whole – to fill all the houses in all the city’s still viable but struggling neighborhoods with new home owners. Neighborhoods that have more assets—gracious historic houses or special features like a park or a walkable commercial core—are more likely to benefit from steps to rebuild their markets than other areas. That raises a separate question: does a city try to pick ‘winners’ in the neighborhood race? In a future post, I plan to discuss why urban planners need to understand and think about Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem. 

Leaving that aside, saving neighborhoods is—at least in concept—not that complicated. It means convincing people that buying a house is a good investment, while making it easier to buy, and that the neighborhood is stable enough that their investment, in both psychological and financial terms, is reasonably secure. Neighborhoods in Detroit, despite valiant efforts by some neighborhood organizations and CDCs such as the Grandmont-Rosedale Development Corporation, are neither.

Making home buying a better investment may be the easier of the two. Marketing efforts, like those of the Live Baltimore Home Center, can draw prospective buyers, while cities may be able to work with private lenders and state housing finance agencies, by offering back-end mortgage guarantees or other assistance, to make mortgages more readily available to buyers. Home equity protection insurance programs, which have been effective in Chicago, increase peoples’ readiness to buy by ensuring that if the market goes down, their investment will be protected. Direct financial assistance is not needed—houses are inexpensive enough that anyone with the resources to be a stable homeowner is likely to be able to afford the sticker price.

The problem is that, unless one can convince people that the neighborhood is stable enough to be worth making the investment in, home buying measures may have little effect. This is the tough part. A few months ago, I led a focus group of civic and CDC leaders from a cluster of these neighborhoods in Detroit. One of the most powerful themes that came across was a sense of powerlessness: that all the levers controlling the future of their neighborhoods—policing, schools, park maintenance, vacant lot maintenance, street cleaning and garbage pickup—were all in the hands of a distant, underfunded and not necessarily competent bureaucracy, accountable as far as they could tell to no one. Ironically, the district-wide school enrollment policy of the Detroit public schools, however fair and reasonable it may seem, may actually work against neighborhood stability, by weakening, if not removing entirely, the connection between the neighborhood and its schools.

For residents to feel that the neighborhood is not stable enough to justify their commitment and feel powerless to change it is a recipe for continued decline. In cities like Detroit, part of the solution may be to recognize that the current system is broken, and to devolve municipal authority to neighborhoods by giving power—and dollars—to those neighborhoods that have the ability to use them effectively, including decentralizing school control and making the schools accountable to the residents of the neighborhood.

I can think of plenty of objections to this idea. Still, I think it is more useful to start thinking about fundamental changes to the way services are delivered and neighborhoods restored, than to continue pretending that the political and bureaucratic status quo in many of our cities is capable of changing enough fast enough to save these neighborhoods.

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