4 key takeaways from our Equitable Development speaker series

Over the last four months, in partnership with Doing Development Differently in Metro Detroit, we've held four panel events with some esteemed speakers and moderators. Each event centered on a different theme that will be crucial to building an equitable Detroit — one that gives everyone the opportunity to participate regardless of your race, age, class, or ability. 

If you missed any of the events, that's alright. We streamed all of them live on Facebook and they're still available online to view using the links below. The events were on...
And if you don't have time to watch all the footage from these videos, well you're in luck again. While there was so much content to choose from and so many insightful moments throughout, here are some of the most important takeaways from the Equitable Development series. 

1. Detroit is still a long ways from having a "healthy" market

Many speak about Detroit's revitalization. And while that's certainly happening in downtown, Midtown, and a few select neighborhoods, that's still not the case for the vast majority of the city. 

There was a lot of discussion about this and the state of the city's market at the "Developer Margins" panel.

Robin Boyle, a retired professor in the Urban Planning Department at Wayne State University, cited an Urban Land Institute study, "Emerging Trends in Real Estate," which compared metrics across 78 U.S. cities. In previous years of the report, Detroit was at ranked 77 or 78 in most metrics. This year, Detroit definitely moved in a positive direction, but it's still got a ways to go compared to the country's "healthy" markets. 

"In many areas, we are still very low down in ranking of change across the board and in individual sectors, at about 67 or 68," Boyle said. "We're not making a move towards some of the major markets — places like Chicago, New York, Dallas, or Houston that fall around the 30s and 40s. Certainly not the places like Seattle, Portland, and Austin which are in the top 10."

Another WSU professor, Peter Hammer, described Detroit as "America's most significant market failure." He cited the thousands upon thousands of people who were foreclosed on and the still very high rate of poverty in the city. 

Melinda Clemons, a senior director for Enterprise Community Partners' Detroit market, was troubled by the amount of subsidies still required to push a project over the finish line. "To get a development done, you need a loan from a bank, a second mortgage from another lending institution, a MCRP grant. Then the developer will need to put more equity in the deal. And that's in places where rents are rising."

Detroit clearly still has a long way to go for these equitable projects to be financed without a great deal of help. 

2. Affordable housing is essential to creating an equitable city — but it's expensive

Many of those difficult to fund projects referenced above will have affordable housing, which, in city with a large low-income population like Detroit, is the most direct way to make sure a project creates equity. 

Arthur Jemison, chief of Services and Infrastructure for the city of Detroit, oversees the city's affordable housing strategy. He cited several projects it's shepherding during the "Understanding Gentrification in Detroit" panel. One of which, The Hamilton, temporarily rehoused its tenants while the building was being renovated thanks to resources and partners leveraged by the city. Those tenants were then allowed to return at the same rental rate. 

"Understanding Gentrification in Detroit" panel as part of our Equitable Development series
Jemison sees that project as a model for redevelopment. "If we have the resources, we can accomplish that over and over again."

But there's a reason we don't see similar stories throughout all of Detroit. "I'd definitely give us an 'A' for effort, and a 'D' for money. And the question is, can we bring that money number up so that we can start performing better."

3. Self-organizing is one of the most powerful tools to own the change taking place in your neighborhood

Community engagement is a practice more and more developers are undertaking to both generate goodwill in a neighborhood and increase the likelihood that residents actually want what's being created. 

But the process will only matter if community members show up and have clear ideas for what they want their neighborhood to be. The communities with the best chance for getting the word out and having plans are the ones that are organized. 

Stephen Henderson, host of WDET's Detroit Today, moderated the panel on gentrification and talked about his own experience with the Tuxedo Project, a writers' residence and literary center in the house he grew up in on a troubled block on the west side. 

"You'd be surprised how much of this city is not organized," Henderson said. "There are huge swaths where there's not even a block club." 

Stephen Henderson
Tuxedo Street hadn't had a block club for 30 years; now 10 people show up consistently. "That means our district manager pays attention, the city has to recognize some of the things we want, the Land Bank considers us a partner, and we are part of decision-making in that neighborhood," Henderson said. "All sorts of things are possible because we're working together."

And there are other ways to organize that can be a powerful buffer again displacement and inequality. We hosted an entire panel about community control through land trusts, which is a way to maintain the sale price of a property by leasing the underlying land. 

Nicholas Leonard, the interim director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, describes land trusts as "a way for communities to buy and manage property to make sure there will always be affordable housing and to preserve local spaces and businesses." Watch our video from that entire event to learn about the various ways that tool can be applied in your neighborhood. 

There are also unions, or the organizing of labor. Stephanie Arellano, Detroit City Director of the Service Employees International Union Local 1, made a compelling case for widespread unionization at our panel "Real jobs in today's Detroit." 

"There are folks who are chronically or generationally unemployed. Balancing that with childcare, transit, and family responsibilities, can make it hard for folks to hold down even a low-paying job. Then they're back into the cycle of poverty. That's one thing we're seeking to change by creating middle-wage jobs."

4. Training Detroiters in the trades is crucial

One chronic issue keeping projects less affordable is the lack of skilled tradespeople, especially in construction. Developer Clifford Brown spoke about the issue at the "Developer Margins" panel.

"Because of a lack of labor, construction costs are going up," he said. "This is a problem from a development standpoint. Rents are not rising at same level. We're seeing a lot of investment, but not a lot of cranes in air because it's expensive to build."

Audience at an Equitable Development panel event
Don O'Connell, the former executive director for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 324, admits that his industry has not been able to hire enough Detroiters to meet demand. But they're are addressing the issue through programs like Access for All, a construction trades training program.

"The hope is that we can create middle-class jobs for Detroiters that would spawn additional economic development," he said. Many of these jobs start at over $30,000 a year with benefits with salaries increasing over time. 

Jan Harrington-Davis, director of employee/labor relations, compliance and workforce diversity at Henry Ford Health System, said a similar problem exists in healthcare. But also that employers across the board are trying to improve their hiring practices. 

"It's very important to hire from the community that you serve," she said "But community members have to be right for those openings, have to be ready. At any point in time there are about 1,000 jobs available, from entry level to nurse practitioners. And we need skilled workers for those openings so we don't have to go outside the city or state of Michigan."

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

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