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More Shrinking Thinking, Continued

Detroit mayor Dave Bing came out strong in favor of reducing the operational size of the city recently, raising the specter of future campaigns to urge some Detroit residents to leave their homes for other blocks or neighborhoods in the city.

"You can't support every neighborhood," Bing told WJR's Frank Beckmann. "You can't support every community across this city. Those communities that are stable, we can't allow them to go down the tubes. That's not a good business decision from my vantage point."

Bing acknowledged it won't be "an easy conversation."

No, it won't be. And it shouldn't be, given that there are still countless Detroiters with deep ties to their homes and communities. (I think, for instance, about all the older people I've known over the years who've purchased vacant lots on either side of their well-kept homes and turned those lots into garden shrines, at once beautifying their own residences and staving off the decay of a surrounding block.) But still, that conversation is one we're going to have to have — unless someone can explain how a city with a plummeting population and a roughly $300-million budget deficit can still afford to provide municipal services to nearly 140 square miles of land, where more than 35 percent of residential lots sit vacant.

Of course, even though I favor the idea of shrinking the city, I'm anxious about how Mayor Bing will and can do it. I've talked to people connected with city development efforts, and I've enjoyed much of what I've heard. But ultimately it is the mayor who's going to have to provide a concrete plan and leadership on this thing— and I hope that will come served with some fair-minded policies on how to deal with relocating homeowners. In fact, if there was one thing about Bing's remarks that did disturb me, it was what seemed to be an implication that the city wouldn't (couldn't?) provide equal services to residents who won't leave desolate neighborhoods.

"If we don't do it, you know this whole city is going to go down. I'm hopeful people will understand that," Bing said. "If we can incentivize some of those folks that are in those desolate areas, they can get a better situation."

"If they stay where they are I absolutely cannot give them all the services they require."

I will admit that I'm questioning whether I'm reading that last line right, but on its surface, the statement seems like an impolitic one to make. I mean, if you really can't provide services, that's one thing. But in this context, at least to me, the line rings as as much a threat as a dire administrative prognostication. And like I said, I favor shrinking the city -- but can you really pull that one on tax-paying residents, even in largely abandoned neighborhoods? (Or even on those too broke to pay taxes?) Legally, I mean? I'm no constitutional scholar, but I have my concerns.

That said, it seems to me that Bing does need to start talking in more direct terms about other potential sticks and carrots here, including the most controversial and historically checkered stick of all -- eminent domain. Again, he's right when he says it won't be an easy discussion to have, and that doesn't just go for the residents.

John Mogk, a Wayne State law school professor, said Bing's on the right track but will face four major challenges: political support; money; creating a bureaucracy to administer the project and legal challenges.

Among the court challenges he sees ahead include the legality of cutting off city services to particular neighborhoods and using eminent domain to relocate residents. In 2006, voters approved a prohibition on government's ability to take property for economic development.

"It's a huge challenge," Mogk said. "No other city in terms of Detroit's scale ... has yet to face up to what it needs to do and has accomplished it."

Big challenge there, but no surprise. And prohibition or not, it'll be interesting to see what the mayor is willing to turn to if/when push comes to shove on resident relocation.

Opposite Bing, though, is an other intriguing stance: That of those who seem to think that Detroit doesn't need to reduce its operational size.

And he's already facing opposition from activists such as Ron Scott, who said he is "adamantly opposed" and believes the business community is pushing Bing to get cheap access to large tracts of the city."Sounds like reservations to me, it sounds like telling people to move," Scott said. "The citizens of the city of Detroit who built this city, the working class, didn't create this situation. You are diminishing the constitutional options people have by contending you have a crisis."

I get the part about constitutional options, but given that land is already dirt cheap here, how much more prodding does a business community that already enjoys cheap land prices and lucrative tax breaks have to do? And while I agree that working-class people didn't create many of Detroit's structural problems, working-class and poor residents are also those most affected by those problems. So I think the same land-management question should be posed to those who oppose the idea of reducing Detroit's operational size as to those who favor it: What, really, is the plan?

Frankly, I'm still mulling this one over, even after this post, and would really like to hear some enlightened views on this whole situation. Is Bing wise to play the "city services" card this early in the game, if at all? What options does Detroit have when it comes to offering incentives for residents to move? Is eminent domain really off the table? Or are you of the mind that Detroit doesn't need to shrink at all, that there's another way to handle city land management and an affordable distribution of services? Share.

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  • 1

    A couple thoughts jump out to me - in the Chicago area a lot of the suburbs have areas refered to as "unincorporated" which is where your taxes are lower and your city services do not exist, ie, you pay an assessment for a library card, police and fire will show up if you call 911 but you have to pay for it on a one off basis and on down the line. As you point out some cannot afford to pay tax in those areas anyway so now at a lower basis they might be able to make it and the city would be relieved a burden.

    If Bing does not want to provide services to certain areas I would suggest defining them and if residents will not leave then they will be assessed at a lower tax rate and provided fewer services. Riffing off that, why not take sections of the city and actually divide them off into new towns, not ones that would actually become thriving municipalities but begin to break up the land mass into smaller pieces that can make decisions on a community basis? This effectively shrinks Detroit but I'm sure creates a raft of new issues.

    • But I wonder how something like that gets done, particularly in a Detroit that'll soon be chopped up into "wards." Can Bing issue a fiat that basically re-zones certain areas? Will the coming ward bosses go for that? Is there a legal precedent?
    • If you've got more, feel free to chime in once more. Again, thanks for the thought-out response.
  • 2

    i was informed that homeowners on earmarked blocks may be offered 125% of home's taxable value. That's not much. A big brick house may have a taxable value of only $9,000. That number x 125% is only around $11,000, an amount that would not allow a purchase of a comparably sized structure. And the house may have an insurance replacement value of over $200,000!! Back when Poletown in Zip 48211 was razed for the GM Cadillac plant, homeowners were generously compensated to buy homes just about anywhere. Some received amounts that allowed them to move to places such as Grosse Pointe Park or Royal Oak. Too bad no one has ideas on repopulating the city or attracting new residents such as college educated young adults who leave our region for Chicago(really old neighborhoods too!!) or immigrants. Hamtramck is filled with immigrants from all over the world. Why can't the city market neighborhoods north and south of Hamtramck to these same groups. I'm sure there would be a market for housing. For example, there is a Hindu(Bangladesh) Temple of E.McNichols. Market housing in the area for these good people. Other cities attract new residents to old neighborhoods such as aforementioned Chicago. Seems there's a lack of will for some creative ideas to repopulate the city.

  • 3

    ..As I blogged here before... Here come the politicos , trying once again, to screw entire city to make some political "hay". Dear old Auntiie 'M' just loves her neighborhood od 2 housers on a city block that's supposed to have 30. That's nice. So for these 2 lovely old widows(or whatever!...Fill in the blanks!) The other 900,000 residents HAVE to Support a MORE OR LESS, Private Security Force; A private Garbge(oops! Refuse ) recyclibng center; A private Snow Removal Co., ; etc., etc.,.The political Formula , FOR DECADES, Has Been Add 2 races, Stir the pot, Let simmer-or even better- smolder, toss in a pinch of Arsenic or venom...Serve This concoction to 2 million...1.6 million,...1 million...900,000 It's, UNBELIEVABLE , yet inevitable, that in THIS CITY (read Detroit AND SUBURBS, Particularilly, OAKLAND CO. and Brooks Patterson!) THE RACE CARD is still being sent out over the media!...Screw these politicos ...THere Total A--H---S!! We'd ALL like to live Wherever WE WANT---Whenever WE WANT! Give decent compensation( Not Grosse Ptes. money for nice house in crime area!) BUT!...If the nice old ladies (and there Lawyers insist) MAKE SURE COMPENSATION IS ONLY FOR COMPARABLE HOUSE IN DETROIT PROPER!..THIS APPLIES EQUALLY for ALL RACES AND ALL NATIONALITIES!

  • 4

    I don't know a thing about property tax law or navigating Detroit politics specifically, but…

    A simple but well-framed economic argument, based on the reality that the city can't afford to cover services for residents in under-populated neighborhoods, should be nearly impossible to refute. The key is to offer a fair and consistent solution supported by “fair-minded policies on how to deal with relocating homeowners.”

    The process should be transparent, but that can only be a good thing because the numbers themselves make such a powerful argument . A simple chart or color-coded map could illustrate by neighborhood:
    1) total cost of providing city services to this neighborhood
    2) # of occupied lots in this neighborhood
    3) cost per occupied lot

    Residents would see that the cost per occupied lot is much higher in under-populated areas. Residents of these under-populated neighborhoods would then vote on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis to decide whether to:
    a) accept that property taxes will have to increase in their neighborhood based on the differential cost of services
    b) take the city's offer to trade their land for an equal sized plot in or immediately adjacent to a more densely populated neighborhood

    This (theoretically…) avoids the notion of political bias towards given neighborhoods and ultimately leaves the most neglected neighborhoods with a choice most of them won't refuse. If eminent domain is ultimately required to enforce neighborhood-level decisions, well, at least a strong case is made to back it up. If a sparsely settled neighborhood can stay AND they can pay, well, that's fine too.

    One important consideration, however, is the city's strength in urban farming which often gets neglected in economic equations. Urban gardeners should be given an opportunity to maintain their urban gardens- perhaps in a new neighborhood built near heavy concentrations of existing urban farms.

    It'll cost money to relocate residents, but just think of how much more valuable the newly cleared land would be to the city once it's better consolidated, geographically. It could be rezoned for farm land, park land, or new residential development. Business leaders and residential developers are naturally much more drawn to empty canvases than they are to scattered lots in unsecured areas.

    Easier said than done, right?

  • 5

    Sad, Sad, Sad...Detroit you are Toast... when those who are supposed to lead you and save you suggest that there be less of you in order to be saved - decide quickly if you want to be white, whole wheat or rye...

    Reminds me of Vietnam - "we had to destroy the village in order to save the village...."

    Empty land (most other urban area's dream)... Overlain with Judge Woodward's Plan (we all love Grand Circus)... AND Tax incentives that INCREASE taxes for developing vacant land... What is the intellectual difficulty here??!!

  • 6

    There has to be never before thought of, creative, controversial, effective and SUSTAINABLE ideas posed for change in our Detroit. Is this one? If thoughtfully and properly planned, executed and maintained, perhaps. Whatever shall be done, Detroit cannot continue with its current structure. Some sort of restructuring has to take place.

    I'm an Urban & Regional Planning major at MSU, and this is the only stuff I think about whenever Detroit crosses my mind, or when I'm home. Whatever Bing and the council come up with, the majority of Detroiters (including myself) may not like. However, we have to think 30+ years down the line, people!


  • 7

    A generally unpopular option, but often recommended by economists because of efficiency considerations, is the user fee. Perhaps user fees, excluding public safety, can be calibrated by geographic area so that they reflect the actual costs of delivering services to those areas. The City might consider identifying areas of the city that are sparsely populated and then holding an auction or taking bids from private contractors to deliver services to those areas, with user fees being assessed based on the price of the contracts. Presumably costs and thus user fees will be higher in those areas. These are "sticks" and not popular but there's nothing like seeing a bill in the mail that must be paid to catch people's attention and help them to realize that there's a cost to government provided (although not necessarily produced) services.

  • 8

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