Developing communities 

Housing experts agree that in Detroit, the need for city dwellings — both market-rate and affordable — is dire. But what they don’t agree on is the best way to bring such housing about.

George Galster is a Wayne State University professor who teaches housing policy and neighborhood revitalization in the College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs. Last year, he and his students created Detroit’s first comprehensive housing policy plan. According to Galster, the city needs to be competitive with the suburbs in its efforts to attract more residents.

“The city has to recognize that it needs to compete for middle- and high-income households with many suburban markets,” says Galster.

By attracting this population back to Detroit, the city can stabilize its tax base, he adds. This money should then be used to upgrade city services such as lighting and public education, as well as to invest in the neighborhoods that don’t need a lot to rejuvenate them, says Galster. Only then, he adds, will there be ample resources to invest in affordable housing and other services for the needy.

“We can’t merely be focused on helping low-income people. We have to think more broadly to create a diverse city that has a tax base that can help invest in affordable housing,” says Galster.

Planning and Development Department Director Paul Bernard disagrees.

“That is a strategy, but certainly not one we believe we can adopt,” he says.

According to Bernard, the demand for market-rate housing — in downtown alone — is for 15,000 units. “And the need for affordable housing is twice if not three times as more,” he says.

Bernard says the city must facilitate housing development of both kinds simultaneously to meet the growing demand.

Housing developer Vince Murray is attempting to do just that. He founded the Bagley Housing Association, on Bagley in southwest Detroit, where he built and sold 22 single-family homes to low- and moderate-income residents. In 1997 they sold for $55,000 even though construction costs were $117,000 per home. He was able to do this through grants from the city and state.

Now, another 23 units are being built nearby which already have prospective buyers, he says. He’s also building a senior citizens’ complex near St. Anne’s church in southwest Detroit.

As a result of his work in the neighborhood, Murray says, the city requested additional developers to bid on a market-rate housing project adjacent to the senior complex. Murray bid on the project and is waiting to hear whether it will be awarded to him. “That was definitely a goal of ours, to see a good mixed-income community and that is coming to fruition,” he says.

Steve Tobocman is an attorney who specializes in public policy and works with many neighborhood nonprofit groups that build affordable housing in Detroit. He says there is ample room, particularly in neighborhoods such as Corktown and the Cass Corridor — where many fear that development is driving out the poor — for both affordable and high-end housing.

“I think there is enough vacant property … that it could work better in Detroit than other areas,” he says.

But some, like Detroit City Council president pro tem Maryann Mahaffey, fear that the very poor, those who can’t purchase a home, will be left behind. Mahaffey formed a housing task force last spring to address these issues; the group is made up of neighborhood developers and advocates such as Murray and Tobocman, as well as city and county officials. The group meets monthly and has made headway in some key areas, but many questions will take time to resolve, like meshing development for the poor and wealthy, says Mahaffey.

“I’m seeing an increase in rents and people getting pushed out. The cheapest housing developments are around $80,000, which a lot of people can’t afford,” she says. “It’s fine to say bring in middle- and high-income residents … I’m all for that. I just want to make sure there is room for people who stayed here all this time.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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