Sam Butler is executive director of Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit. He is pushing for what he calls equitable development to ensure that projects receiving subsidies help neighborhoods.
Detroit needs more discussion – and policies – to ensure the profits from its construction boom trickles down to all residents.
That’s the argument from Sam Butler, executive director of Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit (D4), a nonprofit that hosted a series of forums this fall in Detroit to debate what it calls “equitable development.”
He argues that construction should benefit not just those paying for the projects, but those living near them. Detroit has hiring requirements for major projects that receive subsidies, but a lack of qualified skilled-trades workers has made the goal difficult to achieve (Little Caesars Arena, for instance, paid nearly $3 million in fines because just 27 percent of the work was performed by Detroiters.)
Similarly, there’s fear that longtime residents are being priced out of downtown and Midtown by rising rents.
Bridge Magazine recently spoke to Butler. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Bridge: There’s a lot of talk about a Detroit comeback. Does it benefit everyone?
Sam Butler: The short answer is not yet. But we think it can and want to make sure it does.
There’s been tremendous inequity in the region for decades. And that inequity was drawn along city limits – the city was tremendously low income, while the greater region was more affluent. We’re now in an interesting moment where some of the more affluent are coming back to the city. That’s largely a good thing, but now is the moment to make sure that as that growth happens, it’s inclusive. Now is the time to bulwark against negatives like gentrification.
What is equitable development and how does the city ensure it?
We want to make sure that, if something is built in Detroit, it’s in line with the community wishes, the people working on the project are Detroiters, especially people of color as much as possible, and leads to something of community value – helping address affordable housing, making sure retail things are hiring locally, making available more public space.
What’s the matter with letting the market decide?
If you do, Detroit could just become like so many other American cities where you have a really affluent core and neighborhoods that continue to struggle. We have that market run amok currently: (roughly) 65 percent of Detroiters with jobs have to leave the city for employment (while nearly) 75 percent of the jobs in the city are held by people who live outside the city. The highest-paying jobs – the doctors, the lawyers – are people coming into the city, while the people who live here leave for lower-paying jobs in the suburbs.
Detroit was in a 60-year decline. Now that things are finally picking up, why hamstring development with regulations?
I don’t want to hamstring development. But there is a way to encourage development and bring in that economic activity but make sure the benefits are a little more dispersed.
If you don’t constrain development, you run the risk of all the benefits and capital being concentrated with a mighty few. Then you bank on them reinvesting in the city. And that’s quite a dicey gamble, relying on the benevolence of these captains of industry.
Say what you will about (Detroit developer) Dan Gilbert, but he’s a real-estate unicorn. He’s taking returns on these properties that no other developer would accept. And we’re benefiting from that. He should be applauded for that, but it’s not out of sheer altruism. He’s playing the long game. He deserves financial reward, but that pie is large enough that parts of it can be more widely dispersed.
Detroit voters passed a community benefits ordinance last year that requires developers of big projects who get tax subsidies hire city residents. Isn’t that a big step toward what you’d call equitable development?
That ordinance made national press, but it’s not making anyone happy. It’s a pain to developers. It’s an extra burden on city staff. And community members are frustrated and feel like their input isn’t being heard.
The city also passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance this fall that requires 20 percent of units to be “affordable” if they receive public subsidies.
Detroiters can’t afford the traditional definition of affordable housing, which is 80 percent of area median income (AMI) by federal standards. But that’s defined by our metro area and leaves out lower-income Detroiters who can’t qualify for these (housing units with lower rents.)
There are many Detroiters who make 30-40 percent of AMI who have real trouble finding any housing in the city. So when you create a development that is 80 percent AMI, you are meeting the federal guidelines, but you aren’t getting at the population the spirit of the law intended.
What should the city do?
We need to be more deliberate where we are targeting incentives. We need more affordable housing in the 7.2 (the nickname for) downtown, Midtown and greater downtown. That surprises people when I say that. They say “Don’t you want more development in neighborhoods?” Of course I do, but concentrating poverty in the neighborhoods isn’t doing anyone any favors.
In the neighborhoods, we need more resources to repair homes. We need to be rehabbing homes with kids in them. We’re not doing enough to help them.
Overall, are Detroiters talking enough this issue?
I don’t think we are having that discussion. We need to be talking more about it, and talking what we want future development to look like. It’s going to look different depending on where you are, because there isn’t a blanket solution.
We are not that far removed from the Great Recession. A few years ago, vacancy and blight were the No. 1 issue across the board. While we are fortunate in downtown, Midtown and getting national development, the neighborhoods are still yearning for solutions, so the policies need to be different.
ANOTHER VIEW: What gentrification? Much of Detroit is getting worse.