The future of Detroit depends on equitable development

In 2013, Broder & Sachse Real Estate bought a downtown apartment building, The Griswold. The development firm then informed its tenants, many of whom were low-income, elderly, and disabled, they had to move to make way for upscale, market-rate units in the rebranded Albert. 

By 2017, when it purchased the Milner Arms building in Midtown with similar intentions to renovate the units, their entire approach changed. Instead of kicking out the tenants, many of whom were low-income and elderly, Broder & Sachse worked with the United Community Housing Coalition to help them find temporary housing during the renovation period. Then, it allowed them to maintain their former rental rates alongside the new market-rate residents that joined them at the rebranded Hamilton. 

Why the change in tactics? A greater appreciation of the human consequences of development. 

In an article in Model D, CEO Richard Broder acknowledged his firm didn't conduct The Albert redevelopment as well as they could have. "I think we did a much much better job of it on [The Hamilton]. The question is, did we get it right?"

That is the question on the minds of everyone who cares about creating an inclusive Detroit: How can we develop the city in a way that allows for everyone, especially its long-term residents, to benefit from the changes currently underway? 

Detroit still needs development. New development grows the tax base, and though our municipal budget is experiencing a surplus for the first time in years, more is needed to address Detroit's many needs: well-maintained and designed roads, parks, and public spaces, a well-resourced school system, and more responsive city services. 

But unfettered development often has the effect of making neighborhoods or even whole cities, like San Francisco or New York City, unaffordable. In Detroit, this would mean the expulsion of thousands of largely African-American residents from neighborhoods they've lived in and maintained for years. In a city with a painful history of racial discrimination — redlining, the demolition of historically-black neighborhoods like Paradise Valley, and disinvestment — transforming it in a way that is not economically or racially equitable would be a disgrace. 

Aside from the fact that it's the right thing to do, there are also sound economic reasons to promote this kind of growth. Closing wealth and educational gaps has the potential for billions of dollars in economic benefits from untapped gains in workforce productivity, healthcare costs, and consumer spending. 

But figuring out the right balance between profitability and public good is no simple matter. Focusing exclusively on spurring development will quickly grow the tax base, but create long-term social ills. Placing strict requirements on developers will yield important benefits on individual projects, but potentially choke off growth. 

While there are cases in the United States of conscientious developers and neighborhood advocates aligning values, no city has figured a way to do this consistently. Fortunately for Detroit, we're still in a relatively early stage of revitalization. But that revitalization is happening fast and we may soon find our city transformed — its people displaced and its special character diminished — unless we have the foresight to build this healthy, inclusive Detroit. 

To truly achieve equitable development involves growing a city in a way that allows people from all races, classes, and abilities to participate and benefit from that growth. That means developers including affordable housing in its projects. That means employers prioritizing local hiring. That means any major industrial or infrastructure project considering and protecting against the environmental impact of their work. 

Agreements on these crucial issues can be reached through robust community engagement — sometimes (though rarely) in the form of a binding, meaningful community benefits agreement. To do this, however, developers and planners must cede some control of their project to the people who will be most affected by it. They could consult with residents and ask them what they'd like to see in a project, have them participate in the design and implementation, or give them discretionary authority to determine its very course. 

And we can encourage developers to take these actions through meaningful policy like incentives or city ordinances. 

There are so many ways development can work for Detroiters — it's a great challenge, but the avenues are clearly there. 

This is a topic Model D has taken very seriously the past several years and explored in articles on democratic budgeting, resident-led neighborhood plans and community benefits agreements, delineating public policy, profiling equitable developers, and more. 

To date our efforts at examining this topic have been somewhat piecemeal. But we're about to do it in a much more systematic way.

This article marks the launch of our Equitable Development series in partnership with Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit and thanks to generous support from the Knight and W.K. Kellogg Foundations. 

We'll be covering some of the most important facets of this issue through an eight-part series in Model D and four public events starting in August. In early 2019, we'll co-host an Idea Lab and convene important national city-builders, local stakeholders, and, most importantly, Detroit residents to develop principles and strategies. 

We as a city have to figure this out, and soon. At Model D, we'll be doing what we can to contribute to this conversation.

Stay tuned. 

Correction: This article originally stated that the tenants of The Griswold were "evicted." This is inaccurate  Broder & Sachse Real Estate gave tenants one-year notices before renovations began. 

This article is part of our Equitable Development series, in partnership with Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit, where we explore issues and stories on growing Detroit in a way that allows people from all races, classes, and abilities to participate and benefit. Read more articles in the series here

Support for this series is provided by the Knight Foundation, Knight Fund at the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation
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Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.