Will Detroit’s Comeback Benefit Detroiters?

I found it online: a weary, five-bedroom American Foursquare house on a block in Detroit that had seen better days. The blue tarp over the roof didn’t scare me. (It should have.) Neither did the price: $44,000, which would barely purchase a parking space in the Boston area, where I live.

The house was not far from where my mother’s aunts stayed in the 1940s, when they moved up from Mississippi to escape Jim Crow. Nor was it far from Motown’s first recording studio — now a museum — or Henry Ford Hospital, an enormous complex that was making ambitious plans to expand. I asked my cousin Kristina to check out the house.

“I thought it had a lot of potential,” she told me. She noted that a white guy lived across the street — rare for that part of town. Before I knew it, we owned it, leaky roof and all.

The house, which we purchased in 2021 as a family investment, was part of a crazy experiment to see if we could play a role in improving a neighborhood and secure a place for my cousins, who were born in Detroit but were now in danger of being priced out.

It’s been more than 10 years since Detroit filed for bankruptcy, and a wave of money has crashed on downtown Detroit. Section 8 apartments have become luxury condos. The greater downtown area now boasts an outdoor ice-skating rink bigger than the one at Rockefeller Center, a James Beard Award-winning patisserie and a state-of-the-art arena where some of the biggest stars in the world perform.

Detroit, the great American city that had given birth to the automobile industry and the American middle class, is making a comeback. I confess to being impressed.

Luxury condo construction and a line outside Little Caesars Arena.
The ice-skating rink at Campus Martius Park downtown.

But my Detroit-born cousins were not. The renaissance is concentrated in seven square miles of a city 20 times that size. New amenities — like the quaint Qline streetcar — stop at the edge of downtown and never reach most residents. (My cousin James calls the Qline “the gentrification-mobile.”) Kristina recalls a 2017 ad for the city, which is majority Black, featuring virtually all white faces. It caused an uproar and was taken down quickly, but as far as she’s concerned, it said the quiet part out loud.

As white people have flocked to the most desirable areas of the city, thousands of Black Detroiters have moved away, unable to afford to rent or buy. Worst of all, the megaprojects that are transforming Detroit are being subsidized by tax breaks and sweetheart land deals to billionaires. Many Detroiters feel their taxes are paying for the very forces that are pushing them out.

That anger fueled an activist campaign in 2016 that made Detroit the only major American city to pass a community benefits agreement ordinance that requires developers to negotiate a deal with the community for any project that receives significant tax breaks or public land transfers. In other cities, similar but voluntary agreements have been designed to provide something of value for residents who would otherwise be bystanders to big development deals: A guarantee of living wages in Los Angeles, retail spaces for local artisans in Nashville and priority hiring of disadvantaged groups in Birmingham, Ala. But in Detroit, which passed a watered-down version, it’s not clear whether this ordinance can give lifelong Detroiters a bigger stake in the city’s success.

I started out optimistic that the city would figure it out. If there’s any city that could do development without displacement, I reasoned, it should be Detroit, which has so many vacant houses. But I didn’t take into account the thorny questions about who Detroit’s comeback is for and what investors owe the people who have been here all this time.

‘Welcome to Detroit.’

It takes more than money to bring a dead house back to life in a struggling neighborhood. It takes a near-religious faith that the effort will be worth it. It wasn’t just the roof that needed replacement on our house. After years of neglect, rot had seeped in. What began as a modest upgrade turned into a gut renovation. After a parade of shoddy contractors, I begged a childhood friend — a meticulous artisan — to get us back on track. It felt good to watch him strip out the old knob-and-tube wiring and make what was once crooked straight.

But just as we were about to pass our first inspections, he quarreled with a dishonest electrician we’d hired. The electrician sent an ominous text: “Welcome to Detroit.” Hours later, someone smashed through the door and stole my friend’s tools and our hot water heater.

The police were reluctant to investigate. “This is Detroit,” one officer explained, a phrase I heard often that justified why people in Detroit shouldn’t expect much. After the robbery, every idling car felt like a potential threat. I started getting alerts on my phone about assaults and robberies committed nearby. My friend renewed his license to carry a gun for protection. Kristina urged me not to give up. “God always has a plan,” she said. I counted our blessings: Our next-door neighbor had scared the robbers off, risking his own safety. Several houses near us were getting fixed up. The sounds of hammers and saws filled the air.

In August a neighbor told me about the latest megaproject to come to Detroit: a $3 billion medical complex created by Henry Ford Hospital, complete with a research lab the hospital will share with Michigan State University, and more than 600 units of housing that would be built by Tom Gores, the private-equity billionaire who owns the Detroit Pistons. Construction costs are expected to exceed the $2.6 billion annual budget of the city itself. And it was just a mile from our house.

Henry Ford Hospital.

Some of my neighbors welcomed the project. Others complained about being colonized. I grew hopeful that it would bring more security and jobs. But Cassandra Floyd, the executive director of the West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, a neighborhood group that was surveying hopes and fears about the project, worried that the benefits would flow to the already affluent, like the developments downtown.

Cassandra Floyd in front of the former Fairbanks Elementary School, which may be developed as part of the Henry Ford Hospital project.

A previous agreement with Henry Ford Hospital didn’t live up to expectations, Ms. Floyd said. It focused on jobs. A lot of people got hired. Then a lot lost their jobs. Cynicism set in. Once, she tried to get high school students to draw their dreams for the neighborhood. They refused. “Nobody’s going to do anything for us,” one told her.

“We have to do better this time,” she vowed.

The group decided to push for funds for home repair and rental assistance for longtime residents, among other requests in the community benefits agreement.

Asking for More

In October the community benefits process kicked off with a meeting at a local high school. Jerk chicken was served. From a distance, it looked like local democracy in action. Eighty-three area residents cast ballots for two community representatives who would sit on the committee that would negotiate a benefits package with developers. The West Grand Boulevard Collaborative scored a victory: Two candidates it endorsed won spots on the committee.

But democracy it was not. The other seven committee members were appointed by City Council members or the city planning department. The pressure to agree to whatever developers offered would be intense, warned Tonya Myers Phillips, a lawyer with the nonprofit Sugar Law Center who works closely with Ms. Floyd. Ms. Phillips said the city would do its best to limit the developer’s obligations and that developers would try to pass off existing programs or legal obligations as new benefits. She was right.

Tonya Myers Phillips, a lawyer, is working to hold the city accountable by ensuring that public subsidies to developers produce public benefits.

In the final package, uncompensated care for the uninsured makes up a lion’s share of public benefits that developers offered the city, even though the nonprofit hospital is already obligated to provide some of that. Representatives for the hospital and Michigan State University argued that they’re different from the for-profit developers. The project itself — the creation of a major medical complex in the city — will be enough of a huge benefit to the community, they said. That made sense. But what about Mr. Gores’s housing units? Did they really deserve the nearly $300 million in tax abatements developers were seeking? In community meetings, the tax break was presented as vital to the project’s success, ensuring a modest 4 percent return.

Must be nice, I thought, scratching my head over how to make my own home renovation project break even. Each stage brought new fees and expensive requirements — $900 for a building permit, $250 to register the house as vacant, $1,100 to bury the electrical line.

Checks to Billionaires

By December, it had become clear that the new health care complex was not going to shower surrounding neighborhoods with funding. The developers offered some concessions but little to protect longtime residents from rising rents. Trading poor residents for richer ones seemed to be part of the point.

“That’s what’s so painful,” Ms. Phillips said. The committee had asked for tens of millions of dollars for rental assistance and home repair. Developers offered just $2.5 million — an amount that would be credited against any fines developers might incur for failing to hire enough Detroiters on the construction site, a requirement imposed by the city.

The committee had requested at least $3 million for grants to community groups. Developers agreed to just $300,000 to be distributed over 15 years. That comes to just $20,000 a year, to be divided among community groups in an area that’s home to thousands. It was a stunningly small amount, all the more so when you consider that Henry Ford Hospital employees a few years ago received $20,000 incentives to buy houses in the city. The message seemed clear: The powers that be bent over backward to bring new people in but not to help those already here.

The planned site for Pallister Gardens.

Joanne Adams, a West Grand Boulevard Collaborative member who served on the negotiating committee, was so insulted by the developers’ offer that she spoke out against it, calling it “tokenism.” Others agreed. “We’re tired of giving our welfare checks to billionaires,” one woman said at a public meeting.

But the committee passed it. The City Council will probably pass it, too, when the vote comes up this month.

This process only works if city officials push developers for the best possible deal, Julian Gross, a California attorney who negotiated some of the first benefits agreements, told me. In Detroit that doesn’t happen because people think the city “is lucky to get anything,” Dr. Lisa Berglund, a professor of urban planning at Dalhousie University, told me.

Antoine Bryant, the city’s director of planning and development, told me that Detroit’s ordinance was a national model and that the Pistons’ “strong record of providing community benefits and investment in the city of Detroit” should be taken into account when evaluating the deal.

I didn’t want to let it go. I wrote to Mr. Gores, asking about the microgrants. Was that a typo? Was there a zero missing? He’s a billionaire. Couldn’t he give more? A spokesman replied that Mr. Gores was not involved in the details but defended the benefits package.

“We are not a team of real estate developers motivated by profit,” he told me in an email. “We are a group of partners who came together to improve our shared neighborhood in a way that positively impacts the community.”

It sounded familiar. My cousin and I had said the same thing.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, X and Threads.

Related Articles

Back to top button