A brief history of housing in Detroit

Along with food and water, housing is universally regarded as a basic need. But housing is not basic. In fact, in Detroit, a place which once built housing faster than any other major American city -- and now demolishes housing faster than any other -- housing is quite complicated.

We believe the story of Detroit’s housing is both unique and central to its overall livability. This article is the first entry of a three-part series focused on housing in Detroit. The series will examine three basic questions about housing: How did we get here? How are we living now? Where can we go from here?


I grew up in the city of Detroit. Though there were stints at the beginning in Hamtramck, USA!, and Ghana, West Africa, my first memories are from the ground floor of a rented duplex on Warwick in Warrendale, on Detroit's west side. Neighborhood kids. Snowball fights. My grandma visiting from Scotland kicking a soccer ball with me in the backyard. Then in the winter of 1978, my parents moved -- me, my younger brother, and newborn sister -- to a tidy single-family brick house in Minock Park, Rosedale’s slightly less refined neighbor. My parents still live there.

Warwick duplex in Warrendale has lost some of its neighbors. 

Home in Minock Park

I thought the 1980s and '90s seemed like a pretty fun time in our neighborhood. We played basketball in the backyard, made friends on the street, rode our bikes, had sleepovers, and mostly stayed out of trouble. But what I didn’t comprehend until at least my early teens, was that my home was more
suburb than city.

Sure, we did “city” things. We rode the bus, had the bank and a few stores to walk to, went to a big city school system. And we enjoyed Detroit’s benefits, like diverse people and cultures, libraries, and museums. Most of all, we felt the city’s history and the pride of being part of something bigger than ourselves. But we also lived in a single-family detached house with a front lawn and slender drive and two-car garage. One of dozens on our block. One of hundreds in our neighborhood. One of thousands in the city.

Single-family detached

It’s a little hard to comprehend, but at one point in our not too distant past, Detroit probably contained more single-family, detached housing units than anyplace else on earth. Even as we lost over a million people, our mix of housing remained skewed heavily in favor of the single-family detached dwelling, with over 65 percent of all occupied residential lots inside the city being used for this purpose. Detroit’s reliance on single-family detached housing even exceeds the U.S. average of 60 percent for all residential structures...everywhere -- cities, suburbs, Montana, Texas. 

Graphic compares housing mix in U.S. cities. Detroit is skewed to single family detached.

I remember feeling a certain sense of wonder, superiority even, at some point in high school, being from the city that had built more family “castles” than anywhere else in the known universe. 

I’ve learned and thought a lot about housing over the last 25 years, and I don’t feel the way I did in high school anymore. The world tells us that people can have equally good lives in townhomes, brownstones, apartments big and small, lofts, tiny houses, co-ops, co-living, and everything in between. Even in America. Even in Detroit. Yes, people have argued for years that our national obsession with single-family detached homes has had negative environmental consequences, costs us more in maintenance every month, and makes it more difficult to achieve efficient urban densities, where more integrated, walkable communities can be created and sustained. But that’s not the point of this article, or this series.

No, the real opportunity, it seems, is to think about how to best position Detroit for the future -- how to build on what we have now, including our tens of thousands of single family homes, and more sustainably utilize what has always been our greatest asset, land.

But first, let’s go back to Detroit’s beginnings, indulge for but a few humble graphs, and try to figure out how we got here. How did we come to a place where the city was defined by its current pattern of housing development?

Detroit before cars: Canoes, canals, and choo choos

Many people know that “Detroit” began in 1701 as a modest French farming settlement, trading center, and military presence, with housing consisting of small wooden farmhouses, cottages, and barracks built close to the river, at that time the only reliable transportation route.

Detroit ca. 1701

And while Detroit’s origins may not be a great mystery, it’s important to understand that for our first hundred years, the population of the city was never more than about 2,500. We were farmers, not the citizens of a great city. We were small scale. As a country, too. For a little perspective, New York City in 1800 contained only about the same number of residents as Royal Oak does today. It wasn’t until after the Great Fire of 1805, with the Woodward Plan, that Detroit even contemplated substantial growth. And it wasn’t until the 1830s, after the opening of the Erie Canal, that the population of Detroit really started growing year over year. New Yawk came west.

Around this time, during the mid 19th century, as a merchant class emerged with stronger connections to the east coast, we started building more substantial townhouses, some of brick and stone. A small handful from that time survive. The commercial core of the downtown started to take shape, but the city’s footprint was minuscule compared to today, barely extending past Grand Circus Park. And, like the growing United States itself, there was always more land all around Detroit. More land. More land. Our ability to spread out was only limited by our ability to get anywhere.

John Mason House, one of Detroit’s oldest remaining brick homes, ca. 1850, Corktown.

Railroads changed the land game fundamentally. They blazed hot steel through Michigan’s interior, over land, connecting the dots of our scattered settlements in straight lines, and on a regular schedule. Trains also appeared in Detroit in the 1830s, but really transformed the city in the decades following the Civil War, when the combination of raw material, capital, and a growing workforce forged a manufacturing economy. For the first time, Detroiters could live and work in different places.

The small, sleepy town of 45,619 in 1860 would grow tenfold in the span of fifty years. By the time the auto industry established itself on the top of the manufacturing pecking order in 1910, we were a city of 465,766, living in shacks, lean-tos, cottages, rows of brand new bungalows, arts-and-crafts single families and duplexes, bulging boarding and rooming houses (some having previously served as Gilded-Age mansions), multi-story masonry apartments, and residential hotels. In short, we lived in a mix of whatever worked. Because we worked. A lot. But we still lived relatively close to one another, largely within the confines of Grand Boulevard, and what had been independent villages along the river. We rode the rails on an extensive and growing streetcar and interurban system, pedaled our bikes, and walked to where we needed to go.

Downtown Detroit, just before cars, 1900. What was going down between the men on bicycles?

In 1910, Detroit had become a top-10 American city, with a population density that was pretty much in line with many other big cities of the
day, at about 11,500 people per square mile, or just a bit denser than Hamtramck, the densest city in Michigan, is today. (The overall population density in Detroit has fallen to about 5,000 per square mile today.)

Apartments next to houses, Detroit ca. 1900
Detroit’s housing story radically shifts in the late 1910s and early 1920s, becoming a story more particular to, well, Detroit. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, similar forces helped shape numerous other towns and cities throughout the industrialized Northeast and Midwest. But what makes Detroit even more “Detroit” than say, Chicago, Cleveland, or Pittsburgh? Or Baltimore or Boston for that matter? Especially in terms of the kinds of the housing we built, especially in terms of our reliance on the single family home?

So, what happened?

The first 200 years of Detroit’s growth did little to establish a strong prevalence for any particular type of housing in the city, especially intensively built urban housing, like apartment blocks or row houses. We were small for a long time. Then we grew substantially with a mix of housing that relied on an infrastructure of proximity and walkability through the early years of the 20th century. Not unlike a lot of other places in the U.S.

But then, Detroit exploded like a supernova -- with people, with resources, with possibility. A new idea began to grip the imaginations of the city's people: that everyone should aspire to own, not rent, their home, and that each home be separate from its neighbor. No city on earth grew as fast as Detroit did between 1910 and 1930, with workers streaming up from the American South and all over the world. And then even more came in the years during and after World War II. And we perfected--and got addicted to--a new model for building cities. We built prolifically, to the exclusion of other housing types. The single-family detached house proliferated here, a “monocrop” like no other, filling mile upon mile of subdivision.

The phenomenon of Detroit’s singular place in the 20th century, the city’s incredible growth and fall, is written about extensively. Books like Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Kevin Boyle’s Arc of Justice, and, more recently, George Galster’s Driving Detroit, keenly articulate, in different ways, the various forces at work in Detroit over the last 100 years. Including the idea that, regionally, we’ve had a housing glut for decades, which amounts to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. These books, and other writings, also frame a major aspect of our relationship with each other, through our relationship to housing -- how it is conceived, sold, developed, and lived in by Detroiters.

If nothing else, Detroit’s housing question is a meaty one. It’s a veritable smörgåsbord of issues -- from the evolution of our manufacturing economy, to race and class, to metropolitan politics, and more. Much to chew on and much to digest. So, dear reader, I’ll do my best to distill this complex reality. In terms of why Detroit developed the way it did in the 20th century, with single family detached housing playing such a predominate role, I would posit that there are four major, interrelated factors. And so, I give you the "Four Horseless Carriages of Detroit’s Single Family Housing Blitz," years 1915-30 and 1945-60.

I. Timing

Regardless of how successful the auto industry had become, if Detroit had boomed even a decade earlier, and more importantly with one or more of its established industries (pharmaceuticals, railroad cars, ships, or stove works) leading the way, we could be looking at a very different city today. There would probably be many more apartments and row houses, like Baltimore, or more mixed in character, like Milwaukee. Complementary infrastructure, such as an elevated or subway system, which had been proposed several times, including the 1910s and 1920s, may have actually been constructed and in place to help keep population more concentrated and development patterns more mixed. Granted, even though an alternative history of a denser, more intensely developed Detroit is fun to speculate about, there is no doubt that the impact of the auto industry fundamentally changed how the city, in fact all cities, evolved during the 20th century.

Baltimore was building lots of row houses construction in 1900.
What if Detroit’s pharmaceutical industry and others had grown more?

II. Land

Detroit is not topographically limited. At all. We’ve basically got flat buildable land in nearly every direction. This was a huge factor in the ease of our ability to spread out and develop neighborhoods of single-family detached housing. Other places that tend to get built up more intensely also often have natural conditions that create constraints and promote higher levels of urban density. Think about Manhattan Island, the San Francisco Peninsula, or Pittsburgh’s “Steel Valley.” While these may be extreme examples, the basic notion applies that there is less pressure to build density when there is a bounty of flat, buildable land. Especially if there is an easy way to get around. Imagine the creation of the Great Lakes, during Time Primeval, if retreating glaciers had carved a great valley at Telegraph Road, or had deposited a small range of mountains at 8 Mile. Eminem would have probably have rapped about growing up on Warren Avenue instead of in Warren, Michigan.

Metropolitan Detroit and Windsor is pretty flat, with lots of land.
III. Mortgages (
and policy, and race, too)

Believe it or not, the financial crisis of 2007-08 started by the subprime mortgage debacle was not Detroit’s first rodeo with a mortgage fiasco. A big part of what fueled the home building spree of the 1920s was that Detroit was vying with Chicago and New York to be a national financial center. The explosive growth of the auto industry had made Detroit flush with cash, and several upstart banks and financial institutions worked together to help ensure that the money made in Detroit circulated close to home. What better way than by selling, building and financing homes to an emerging middle class with the new idea of home ownership and an American Dream?

In 1920s Detroit, building projects accounted for well over $1 billion (in 2015 dollars) on an annual basis and took, in large part, the form of single-family houses. In fact, the beautiful art deco Guardian Building skyscraper downtown, was built for the Guardian Union Trust, a conglomerate of several banks that had underwritten countless Detroit mortgages, a rare practice for large banks in the day. At that time, normally a bank required as much as 50 percent down to issue a mortgage with a repayment term of just 10 years. In 1920s Detroit, the policy changed dramatically, and banks routinely loaned 100 percent to developers to build and sell tracts of homes in what was then a very “New Detroit.” The Guardian Union Trust, like so many financial organizations over-leveraged with debt, went bankrupt in early days of the Great Depression, contributing to thousands of foreclosures.

Architect-Builder House on the west side, 1920s.
A couple of decades later, after World War II and during Detroit’s last great building boom of the 1950s, which also coincided with the construction of Detroit’s freeway system and urban renewal programs, loans from the federal government in the form of the G.I. Bill helped subsidize thousands of Levittown-style cottages at the city’s edges and throughout inner ring suburbs like Harper Woods, East Detroit, and Livonia.

It is well
documented that these loans were favorable for the underwriting of new home mortgages; however, they also disproportionately helped white veterans and only served to exacerbate the real estate practices of blockbusting and earlier redlining, which segregated Detroiters along racial lines and accelerated the movement of people out of the city. This legacy is still very much a part of the Detroit housing landscape, and incredibly, nearly 25 percent of Detroit’s existing housing stock is from the period 1950-1959.

IV. And, of course, cars

Finally we arrive at the inevitable: the automobile. Yes, as the train had a couple of generations earlier, cars, when they came into their own in the 1910s, changed the land game all over again. Nothing in history has had such a profound impact on the American landscape as cars. Our cities were no exception. But, as we’ve said earlier, when cars came, Detroit was the exception. We did everything that had to do with cars, and we did it more. And nothing represented a lifestyle with cars more than the single-family detached house. In this way, the evolution of the house in Detroit was revolutionary in terms of how it changed urban space everywhere.

Detroit’s near east side. Left image shows conditions before the freeways, sometime in the 1930s - 50s. Right image is the current view. Star shows location of Hastings Street, which was the heart of the Paradise Valley neighborhood.

Before the car, horse carriages plied streets and alleys. Some grand houses had paths cut from the street so that a horse carriage could deposit its passengers at the steps of the house. However, for the most part, since the priority for people’s mobility in the city was walkability and access, curb cuts were few and far between. Houses, even detached ones, were more closely spaced together to allow people to come out and on to the sidewalk, and make a more direct path to the the commercial street, where they might catch a streetcar or walk to where they needed to go.

The first car-based developments in the 1910s and 1920s kept this mode of building -- the street was more for pedestrians, and cars were relegated to the back with detached garages accessible via alleys. Later in the 1920s, more homes were built further apart and included curb cuts from the street, and thin driveways so that cars could access the back garage directly. But cars were still out of sight, and there could be some amount of street orientation maintained. In the decades after WWII, at the dawn of mass suburbanization, developers pushed the limits further with a one-two punch. They began to give car garages equal placement on the street as the front door for people, and then attached the garage to the house. Cities simply didn’t have the space to compete, though Detroit did its best. Even in recent decades, suburban style homes, with an attached garage have been built in some neighborhoods.

Recently constructed houses in Woodbridge


It would seem that if we’ve learned anything over the last 100 years, it’s that the single-family detached house is a double-edged sword. It's easy to see why it's enticing and convenient for the American lifestyle--one that was literally forged in Detroit; however, it has become apparent that relying heavily on the single-family detached house seems like one of Detroit’s greatest mistakes. As other markets in the U.S. are redeveloping and preference is being given by both millennials and their parents for more integrated, walkable, and urban environments, Detroit is struggling to position itself as a viable alternative.

To compete, we must look beyond what we’ve known and think about how we create housing that is more adaptable, flexible, and responsive to future housing demands. We must think beyond what has so singularly defined Detroit -- the single family home -- and the “infinite progress” model, where we’ve thrown away so many of our homes, our neighborhoods, just to “trade up” up for the latest model year.

At the same time, more sustainable models may be close at hand. Can we look for answers in neighborhoods like Southwest Detroit, where we have maintained the historic mix housing types and uses, or Lafayette Park, where we built several housing types for a diverse population?

It was the intersection of Detroit’s people, economy, and land that created the places we live in today. There’s a certain inescapable reality to that condition. Understanding what we are doing now and where we can go in the future can shape our comeback and make it a more sustainable fourth century for Detroit. We’ve got to do different. And we can.

Look out in the coming weeks for the second article in this series, where we will explore the housing projects taking shape in Detroit today.

In early 2016, Model D will host a related public discussion on the future of Detroit’s housing and residential communities. We encourage readers to discuss and share the content of this series and then join us for the live discussion, where we hope Detroiters can connect with others interested in playing a proactive part in the future of Detroit housing.
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