Detroit newcomers get tax credits, old timers get water shutoffs

Right now Detroit is a focal point for national media coverage, as rapid development puts the symbol of America’s economic decline in a light of restoration. New storefronts open in once-abandoned buildings, restaurants offer exotic cuisines from Spanish tapas to vegan, and plans are announced to build new housing downtown.

The renewal of Detroit encourages other cities that the financial hit that has plagued us for so long may be coming to an end. However, for Detroiters, there is so much left out of this story. It’s a story that polarizes Detroit’s longtime population, which questions whether the city really is experiencing renewal or whether gentrification is whitewashing over the extreme challenges Detroiters are facing.

This summer, thousands of Detroit families have have lost access to water. The protest slogan, “water is a human right” is sweeping social media, headlines and picket signs – and most consider that this is not just rhetoric or jargon but a basic decree of any civilized society. That some Detroiters are experiencing a lack of resources on par with Third World countries signals a major contradiction to the story that the city’s progress is uplifting residents.

While these contradictions abound, it is impossible to accept that the lives of Detroiters and newcomers are equal while the majority of the city’s mostly African-American population are experiencing a quality of life so low (though under the same governance as newcomers) that the United Nations is speaking up.

Mayor Mike Duggan announced his new “blight app” in July. According to the Detroit Free Press, this app allows people to “help Detroiters keep track of derelict properties by taking photographs and entering blight reports into a database.” This app encourages people who view blight to do their civic duty and report it.

Families amid the blight

For neighborhoods where blight can provide physical danger to families and individuals who fear that property can be inhabited by criminals, this idea would put many at ease. The problem is many of the homes which can be considered “derelict” are still occupied by families, the elderly and many impoverished individuals who already are at risk of losing water.

The imminent threat of losing both access to water and a home, because of the inability to pay a bill, is a very real concern for thousands of Detroiters.

Meanwhile, homes which are won at auction are eligible for rehab loans at low interest rates, while original homeowners who lost property for blight have windows as short as 72 hours to comply with standards. It is obvious that in many of the cases where negligence is visible in Detroit communities, a lack of expendable income for upkeep can account for the disrepair.

With the low percentage of Internet access and mobile phone service for Detroiters – likely lower in these months where Detroiters have had to sacrifice services to pay water bills – there is a question of how well the blight app can really reflect the community and what blight is most immediately pressing.

People moving into neighborhoods with more expendable income will undeniably affect the standard; and titles to homes being confiscated can lead to whole neighborhoods switching hands. The notion that an app on the phone is connected to the city’s governance further reinforces the segregation that denies the importance of verbal discourse in the city between Detroiters and newcomers. This is just one of several ways in which social media is a factor in gentrification and the division of Detroiters from the new people moving in.

Real estate sites like Curbed Detroit target a middle-class audience and often report on foreclosed and auctioned homes. The contradiction of Detroiters being encouraged to report blight and local sites promoting the very same properties to be sold at auction as “desirable fixer-uppers” is undeniable. In a city where fewer than 40 percent of residents have access to the Internet or a library where it is present, the resources benefitting the middle-class invariably exclude many Detroiters.

City skewed to newcomers

Foundations like Kresge, Knight and Skillman are funding artists, musicians and entrepreneurs as they seek to contribute to Detroit’s communities and the alternative economy. Contests like Hatch Detroit fund entrepreneurs through online voting. There are virtually unlimited resources for new Detroit business owners, who seek to “invest” in Detroit. The abundance of finances and grants for projects and businesses does not go unnoticed by the population of Detroit which sees their neighbors’ water shutoff and the daily updates on bankruptcy court and then see New York Times articles covering the rise of Detroit’s entrepreneurial class in predominantly white neighborhoods, like Corktown.

The city seeking to reward investors while disabling lifelong residents who have never stopped investing in Detroit creates resentment. There is no argument for or against gentrification. That is not what it boils down to. There are benefits of having a rise in the creative class present in a city that had witnessed so much despair in the last 30-plus years.

There is always a positive light to abandoned property being demolished and neighborhoods becoming safe again. However, it is more complicated than it appears when the deep wound of economic inequality is festering in Detroit. A large part of the problem with gentrification is the dehumanizing inaccuracy with which the lives of Detroiters are being reflected by social tools which divide us, and which can only be remedied by real discourse between Detroiters and those moving into the city.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Jon Blakey
Thu, 08/21/2014 - 10:58am
Zoe: Thanks for the reminder that there are more than one story when it comes to the revitalization of Detroit. I do not pretend to know what the answers are or what the balance needs to be in terms of financial support being provided to the various competing constituents. Hopefully the elected officials can sort through this in a fair and balanced manner. We must bring Detroit back to a liveable city for all. Michigan's economic well-being is to some degree, dependent on that happening.
Thu, 08/21/2014 - 1:00pm
Zoe for president.
Thu, 08/21/2014 - 8:41pm
I feel that Detroit should have WHATEVER resources it needs to get through this! Americas shouldn't offer any relief efforts to Syria or Iraq until "our" Detroit is token care of! Funds sent overseas could've and should've went towards any of Detroit's debts 1st. Details don't matter! No City in America should have to go through this!
Fri, 08/22/2014 - 2:10pm
Hell yes. Amen to everything. People are very very blind.
John S.
Sun, 08/24/2014 - 12:39pm
Some of the affordability problems of home ownership in the City of Detroit (for both the poor and the middle class) would be addressed if the City found some way to reduce the high millage and reassess properties at their true market value. Many of the poor in the city simply don't have the money to pay their property taxes let alone their water bill. What money is left for maintaining the house? The schools could do a better job with respect to financial education. Lousy money management is a problem that cuts across all social classes.