Say the G-Word: Gentrification in metro Detroit is real

In 2013, then head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation George Jackson Jr. told an audience in Gross Pointe, “When I look at this city’s tax base, I say bring on more gentrification…we can’t just be a poor city and prosper.” Jackson’s thoughts are echoed by many in metro Detroit who believe that developments aimed at attracting new upper income residents to the city will automatically benefit everyone. It’s representative of the idea that Detroit can’t be gentrifying because it’s too poor or too spacious—but that idea is wrong.
New developments have caused serious problems for Detroiters: over 100 senior citizens evicted from their homes in Capitol Park to make way for luxury apartments; $175 million from taxpayers to a developer who promised  to create local jobs but only provided 15 opportunities;  long-time residents of a city that is 83 percent black left without a stake in the city’s largely-white downtown renaissance. These problems are even harder to overlook within metro Detroit's history of policies that have contributed to structural wealth and opportunity gaps between predominately white suburbs and a predominately black city.
But Jackson’s comments are mainstream. Our collective response to these challenges seems to be that while some of these situations are unfortunate, they are simply necessary by-products of important revitalization projects. Sure, we lament the lack of equity, but ultimately we defer to economic development interests. Furthermore, we wrongly assume that equity and economic development are at odds.
But a growing body of research suggests the opposite is true: inequitable cities and regions have shorter periods of sustained growth and prosperity. It turns out that when working-class residents can’t afford to live near new developments, business owners are less likely to be able to fill low- and middle-income positions. In order to sustain its growth, Detroit needs to not only attract new residents, but also provide protections for its most vulnerable residents.
Actions from Mayor Duggan and Detroit City Council are an important part of meeting these challenges, but they can only go so far—many of these problems are inherently regional. Inner city growth and equity is increasingly intertwined with regional growth and equity. Housing and employment opportunities are distributed regionally; in other words, we live, work and play across municipal boundaries. Businesses are more likely to base their location decisions on metropolitan, rather than municipal, characteristics.
At Metro Matters, we’re looking at how metro Detroit can grow both stronger and more equitable. We’ve talked to government, development, and community leaders from the around the city and region. They’ve helped us understand that while gentrification in Detroit looks different than gentrification in Brooklyn or San Francisco, the impacts on people are no less real. 
Three primary gentrification challenges face Detroit and other postindustrial legacy cities: First, a lack of affordable housing in high-opportunity areas and the reduction of existing stock in newly developing areas; second, a lack of employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for long-time residents, even in areas of development; third, a social and cultural exclusion that leads residents to feel unwelcome in their own communities. We’ve created a website,, that delves into these issues and highlights some solutions that could work in metro Detroit.
In our research, we found that many regions are tackling these challenges through a variety of policies and programs. In Chicago, for instance, eight metropolitan housing authorities have coordinated their efforts to provide more low-income housing choices in high-opportunity neighborhoods. In Pittsburgh, a group of regional manufacturers in need of entry-level workers created a training and social support program for low-income residents.
There’s no reason why metro Detroit’s public and private leaders can’t take similar steps. The problems associated with gentrification in Detroit are not the inevitable by-products of development. In reality, the region’s inability to solve them could significantly slow economic growth. But with a strong commitment to inclusion, Detroit can become the center of a thriving metropolitan region.
Dominic Russel is a junior at the University of Michigan and the junior chair of the Roosevelt Institute Student Board of Advisors. This summer he served as a Metro Matters Research Fellow through the UM Community-Based Research Program. Follow him on Twitter at @DomRussel
The Michigan Suburbs Alliance is now Metro Matters, an organization dedicated to building a stronger and more equitable metro Detroit through smart regional policy. Metro Matters works across sectors, boundaries, and politics to unify the region and advance shared solutions to our most persistent challenges. To learn more and get involved, visit us online and drop us a note: