More to the Story
The international spin on Detroit is its motor is running on all cylinders.
But when economic acceleration gets to the neighborhood level, that’s where some say it has stalled.
As Detroit strives for greater housing and economic justice, changemakers continue to focus on inclusive recovery — a balancing act that must attract new life to the city while ensuring longtime Detroiters can still afford to live in and benefit from the revitalization.
Fighting for the Right to Healthy Housing
Hearing rain fall on her roof, one resident of Detroit’s Conner Creek neighborhood once was soothed by its rhythm.
But now — after repeated flooding in her home — she feels panic. “It was very calming, relaxing and helped me sleep. Now it’s a source of great anxiety ... and the first thing I do is look at my basement.”
Assistant Professors Natalie Sampson and Carmel Price have met many Detroiters with similar stories as they have researched environmental health issues present in the city and the effect on the people living there. Residents across Detroit’s seven districts have reported repeated flooding in their homes during average rainstorms. Reasons include aging infrastructure, climate change and older homes.
"We are hearing a common story across Detroit about flooding. By collecting these narratives, we can show decision makers what a severe issue this is."
Sampson said that, according to Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments, the amount of precipitation falling in the Midwest during the 1 percent of heaviest precipitation events has increased by 37 percent since the mid-20th century.
“We are hearing a common story across Detroit about flooding. By collecting these narratives, we can show decision makers what a severe issue this is,” Sampson said. “People are living with it — along with the health risks that come with it, like sewage exposure, mold growth and economic stress from repeated events. That needs to change.” The two faculty members are planning to work with community members to bring awareness to the flooding issue by sharing these study findings and proposed solutions with decision makers.
In related research, Sampson has worked with government, academic and community partners to create bioretention gardens in vacant lots in Detroit’s Warrendale neighborhood that have collected hundreds of thousands of gallons of rainwater to date. She and colleagues in Dearborn and Ann Arbor also are analyzing data from a survey that asks about perceptions of this green infrastructure with flood-specific questions; the findings will be out in early 2019.
Giving Power to the People
Master craftsman Carl Nielbock’s focus has expanded beyond re-creating historic designs to capture the artistry of the past; this Detroiter, whose work is found in the Fox Theatre and Fisher Building, is putting metal to use in another way: He’s crafting a sustainable future.
This fall, two of his power-generating windmills — made of upcycled satellite dishes, truck axles and other found items — went up in Eastern Market. One powers wireless internet servers and charging stations for public use in the market, and the other is used to run a weather station for an urban farm.
"He shared his vision to take what the city has and make something that is beautiful, functional and sustainable. We wanted to do what we could to help him make it happen."
Nielbock, who is founder and owner of CAN Art Handworks, has a long-term goal of generating green energy in Detroit on a large scale using existing materials and employing people already within the city to design, build and innovate green energy technology.
And University of Michigan faculty members from both Dearborn and Ann Arbor are working to help make his dream of a Green Energy Village — rows and rows of energy-generating wind-turbine and solar panel-equipped sculptures — a reality on Detroit’s east side.
“After getting to know Carl over the years, he shared his vision to take what the city has (discarded objects, vacant land and a need for jobs and resources) and combine them to make something that is beautiful, functional and sustainable. We wanted to do what we could to help him make it happen,” said Sociology Professor Paul Draus, who received a Catalyst Grant from the University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute to partner with Nielbock and Eastern Market Corporation.
The interdisciplinary team of researchers is currently measuring and evaluating the potential energy output, environmental impact and socioeconomic benefits of using the beautiful and mighty machines.
Faculty members next will work with Nielbock to explore the potential for scaling up the existing windmill designs and to project long-term impacts for surrounding resource-stressed communities in terms of sustainable energy, environmental benefit and job creation.
Putting Numbers to Work for Neighborhoods
More than half a million legal documents and years of research have gone into a database and web map with the goal of helping Detroiters better understand what is happening in their neighborhoods.
Created by Social Sciences Assistant Professor Joshua Akers, Property Praxis is an online tool that maps the city’s 139 square miles and marks speculator-owned property — meaning companies or people who own five or more properties in the city of Detroit but don’t live there.
Despite the narratives of a resurgent Detroit, it’s a city where one-third of all residential properties were foreclosed in the last decade. Speculators own nearly 20 percent of all properties in the city, many purchased for less than $1,000. Between 2005 and 2015, more than 40 percent of foreclosure sales went to buyers with 50 or more properties. These buyers often used LLCs to protect their assets and shield their identity.
“The process of speculation has far-reaching negative impacts on neighborhoods,” said Akers, noting these properties are used to exploit low-income residents seeking shelter. The buildings are often neglected and eventually abandoned once the property is no longer viable, leaving Detroit residents on the hook for the cost of demolition.
That’s why Akers thought it was important to dig into the records of shell companies and LLCs, which are often used to hide ownership or skirt tax payments, when creating the database. It helps residents understand what’s happening on their block, informs policymakers on how low-income housing markets changed following the 2008 financial crisis and gives community organizations data for outreach and strategy.
"The process of speculation has far-reaching negative impacts on neighborhoods."
Assisting Detroit’s O’Hair Park neighborhood, Akers and his students used this data to build a map to aid the neighborhood association in its stabilization efforts. Akers identified addresses tied to volume owners known to use predatory land contracts and/or had tax foreclosure history.
“We built a map and that enabled us — Detroit Eviction Defense, the O’Hair Park Community Association, students and UAW 600 —
to knock on 200 doors and invite them to a meeting offering legal advice and assistance to help people stay in their homes,” said Akers, who noted some residents are experiencing unjust housing practices like tax overassessment or deceptive rent-to-own agreements. In that case, more than 30 families received legal services. And the work continues.
Offering a Chance at Home Ownership
To build a stronger community, you have to start at home.
The Rev. Faith Fowler (‘02 MPA), through her nonprofit Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), has taken that message to the streets. CCSS, along with many volunteers, removed blight from a corner of northwest Detroit and created a tight-knit neighborhood of 25 homes.
"I love this city, but there’s still an ocean of residents in our neighborhoods who are trying to get by. Let’s put a focus on their hopes and aspirations too."
Many know that her Tiny Homes initiative has attracted worldwide attention for the homes’ energy efficiency, cute appearance and minimalist ideal. But Fowler didn’t create these structures to be trendy. She wanted to help build up people who had once been torn down.
“Homeownership is how people accumulate wealth. Extremely poor people never qualify for mortgages, and so this tiny home model allows them the chance to experience economic mobility as well as residential stability,” said Fowler, CCSS executive director.
Education is important, so the once housing-insecure residents are formally introduced to community living again by attending homeownership classes, meeting with financial advisers and completing eight hours of community service a month. They also pay a monthly rent of $1 a square foot — for the smallest homes this is $250 and the largest, $400. And after seven years, the house becomes theirs outright.
“For most, this is the first time in years they’re able to decide what to hang on the wall. They can cook for themselves and have the freedom to decide when to eat their meals. If they want to own a pet, they can choose to. These homes offer security; you could pass it down in your family if you choose. That’s the key — they offer choice. They offer dignity.”
CCSS also is incorporating other self-sufficiency lessons. For example, it is cultivating a 1.8-acre urban farm, which will include a greenhouse, so residents can grow food year-round.
Fowler said she’s happy to see her city get so much positive attention and grow economically in recent years. But many of Detroit’s people — people who stayed through the worst times — are left out of the transformation.
“I love Detroit,” she said. “I love this city, but there’s still an ocean of residents in our neighborhoods who are trying to get by. Let’s put a focus on their hopes and aspirations too.”