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Incentive programs for city employees start to pay off

Apparently you've got to pay them to live in Detroit.

Two major incentive programs that encourage those who work in Detroit to live in the city have kicked off in the past month. One of them, Live Midtown, is for employees of Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center and Henry Ford Health System. The other, Project 14, is a city of Detroit program to get police officers and possibly firefighters to live in the East English Village and Boston-Edison neighborhoods.

The Live Midtown website, livemidtown.org, says it succinctly: "It Pays to Live in Midtown. Literally."

"Many employers across the country have employee assistance programs like this," says Sue Mosey, director of the University Cultural Center Association, which administers the Midtown effort. "The idea is for anchor employers to offer benefits to retain and attract employees. Also, foundations are interested in attracting people to live in the core downtown area. Philadelphia ran a similar program for about five years; Baltimore has been running one for a long time."

There are four incentive options in Live Midtown for the area bounded by I-75 to the east, Philadelphia to the north, Mack/Martin Luther King to the south, Rosa Parks to the west, and Grand River Avenue (Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks) on the southwest.

New renters can receive a $2,500 allowance for the first year and $1,000 for a second year. New homeowners can get a $20,000 forgivable loan, or $25,000 paid out at $5,000 a year. People who have already plunked money down in the neighborhood aren't left behind. There is a $1,000 allowance for renewing a lease in 2011, and existing homeowners can get matching funds of up to $5,000 for exterior improvements on projects that cost $10,000 or more. Well, that could put a new roof on your house.

"This is an anchor-driven program, funded by anchor institutions," says Mosey. "It's another opportunity like many incentives to encourage more density. There are many other incentive programs in the neighborhood, grants for security improvements, for commercial business to fix up the front of their building. There's a mix of all things that help continue to improve the neighborhood. It helps everyone who's been here if more people move in and fix up the neighborhood."

WSU, the DMC and Henry Ford are three of the city's largest employers. WSU has 26,000 employees; the DMC has more than 12,000 employees in nine facilities; Henry Ford system spokespeople I spoke to couldn't breakdown how many of their 23,000 employees are in the city proper, but the program is open to employees system-wide. Those numbers carry considerable economic clout. As of last week, Mosey said the UCCA had processed about 30 applications, with more buyers than expected.

Project 14 beneficiaries are considerably fewer. The pilot program is offering 200 potential residencies. There are about 3,000 Detroit police officers, 53 percent of them living outside Detroit; a higher percentage of firefighters, who could be included in the program later, are nonresidents. Project 14 offers cops city-owned and -renovated homes for $1,000 down — with generous help with remaining down payment costs — and buyers responsible for monthly payments (principal, interest, taxes and insurance) of $500 to $1,000 per month.

The project name is from Police Code 14, which means a situation has returned to normal. It's hard to say what's normal when it comes to police residency. The state Legislature ended an 80-plus-year city policy in 1999 when it banned employment residency rules statewide. Policies across the nation show little consistency. Chicago requires police officers to live in the city; Atlanta doesn't. Philadelphia requires police to live in the city, but last year began relaxing requirements and accepting applications from nonresidents.

It's revealing that the city offers homes in only two neighborhoods. East English Village is a place where developers have built numerous homes over the past decade. Boston-Edison is a formerly tony neighborhood that has fallen on tough times. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Berry Gordy all once lived there. The houses are large, and proximity to the New Center and the proposed Woodward rail line make this a prime candidate as a comeback neighborhood.

Now we're getting a sense of where Detroit is headed. Propping up East English Village helps nearby Indian Village and the East Jefferson corridor near Belle Isle. Midtown and Boston Edison build on the Woodward corridor strategy. Last fall the Living Cities foundation collaboration picked Detroit as one of five cities (along with Baltimore, Cleveland, Newark and Minneapolis/St. Paul) to benefit from its Integration Initiative — a $17 million pledge that will help leverage millions more in grants, commercial loans and below-market rate charitable loans — along the Woodward corridor. Goals include at least 200 new units of mixed-income housing, renovation of at least 75 properties, attraction of 10,000 new residents and providing at least $50 million in additional vendor and supplier opportunities to local businesses. Apparently being close to Woodward heightens your chance of being a target for redevelopment.

Project 14 prompts another question: Does this give us any clue on what incentives will look like when the city tries to move people from sparsely populated neighborhoods to more densely populated areas? So far the city has been mum. The Project 14 incentive is employment-related, so neighborhood consolidations could be entirely different. However, if the city wants to take the property you already own, it might make sense to trade you for property that the city already has and leverage grants to help fix your new place up. I don't know much about urban development, but it seems something like that would stink less than other scenarios.

Detroit can't prosper with just the East Villages and the Woodward corridor. There are too many other areas — Jefferson-Chalmers, Corktown, Rosedale Park — that matter and have the clout to be heard. But you've got to start somewhere, and a train along Woodward past major employers isn't a bad idea.

And having the police live in the city where they serve has got to help. Police won't feel so much like an occupying force, and citizens may feel more kindly to a police force that has officers they know from the hood.

When I moved to the Greenacres neighborhood in 1995, a cop lived three doors down. It didn't hurt my sense of security to see his cruiser out front some nights. I can't remember whether he moved after the Legislature removed the residency rule or not, but, these days, that place is vacant and the biggest eyesore on the block, with bricks literally falling from one corner, leaving a portal for creatures and the weather to do more damage. It'd be nice to have someone move in and fix the place up.

Mine isn't one of the designated neighborhoods for the Project 14 pilot program. But a successful pilot program usually breeds more and bigger of the same. Greenacres is on the north end of Detroit's Woodward corridor. The light rail project is supposed to eventually make it out to Eight Mile Road. Maybe there's hope. In the meantime nobody is paying me to stay, but I'm not going anywhere.

More by Larry Gabriel

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