Op-eds and Articles

How to Build a New Detroit

By / 7.23.2013

Following a half-century of economic decay and depopulation, there was a tragic inevitability to Detroit’s decision last week to declare bankruptcy. Motown must now restructure $18 billion in debt owed to 100,000 creditors and bondholders, deciding who gets paid, how much and when.

That’s the plan to deal with Detroit’s past. But what about a plan for the city’s future?

Like Pittsburgh, Baltimore and other former industrial hubs, Detroit must now reinvent itself. At this stage, no one knows what a New Detroit might look like. So before they start courting businesses and looking for investments that generate new jobs and tax receipts, city leaders should focus on the fundamental preconditions for an economic revival.

That means making Detroit safe and livable for its citizens, and “right-sizing” a city that once was home to 2 million people but now has only 700,000 residents. How do you do that? One answer lies in the 78,000 abandoned homes that litter Detroit proper.

In 2010, Mayor Dave Bing launched a pilot program called “Project 14.” The city took 200 foreclosed homes and offered them to police officers for $1,000. They then used federal stimulus funds to offer up to $150,000 to owners to re-hab the homes into good condition. That’s a start, but with a murder rate at a 40-year high, 5,000 fires a year and an ailing public school system, Detroiters still have plenty of good reasons to flee for the suburbs.

To help staunch the bleeding, the city should engage in wholesale “urban homesteading”: Take those 78,000 abandoned homes and offer them for free – that’s right, for free – to new police officers, firefighters, EMS and public school teachers.  This would create a new infusion of human capital into Detroit, and help it emulate the success of other big cities in bringing down crime rates and replacing “dropout factories” with new and better schools. It would implant the backbone of a new middle class.

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