Detroit Exodus Shows No Indication of Slowing Down
Nearly 36,000 leave the city since 2000
Brad Heath, Detroit News, Jun. 25
DETROIT — The stream of moving vans leaving Detroit appears to have speeded up, suggesting tougher times ahead for the city’s struggling public schools, its derelict neighborhoods and a government already in financial crisis.
Detroit has been dismantled by a declining population for a half-century. Yet the pace shows no signs of slowing, even as new homes and businesses have begun to draw new faces into once-vacant corners downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
Since 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates nearly 36,000 people have left Detroit — nearly half as many in three years as left during all of the 1990s. Last year alone, another 10,000 moved away — one of the sharpest population drop-offs among the nation’s largest cities.
“The city really needs to look at what’s going on,” said Kurt Metzger, research director for Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies. “They need to start going neighborhood-by-neighborhood and understanding what are the needs, what are the problems, why are people leaving and what would make them stay.”
The losses come even as outer-ring suburbs — particularly the fringe townships — continue to see explosive growth. Lenox Township’s population grew nearly 8 percent between 2002 and 2003; nearby, Macomb Township grew about 6 percent.
But Detroit’s decline is increasingly marked by contradictions: The declining city added new housing last year at its fastest pace in more than two decades.
All around Alan Johnson’s neighborhood near downtown Detroit, new lofts and trendy restaurants have opened their doors. With all the new bustle, he figures it won’t be long before Detroit starts growing again.
However, Johnson doesn’t plan to stick around to see it. He’s looking for a place in Brownstown Township.
“It’s quiet there. I like that,” Johnson said. “Look at all the crime we have in Detroit. What other choice do you have?”
For Detroit and other cities coping with population loss, the price is steep:
* Detroit stands to lose millions of dollars in state and federal spending, which is often linked to population. Its population losses during the 1990s already took a big chunk from community-development grants and other money; losses are likely to be bigger in the future.
* The city’s tax base will face increasing strain, as fewer people are forced to shoulder the burden of paying for city government through income and property taxes.
* Detroit schools also stand to lose money, as more parents move their children to the suburbs. For every 150 students who leave, the district loses $1 million in state funding, which is tied to enrollment.
* Fewer people mean less representation and clout in Congress and the state Legislature, because legislative districts are tied to population.
Beyond that, experts say, many of the problems confronting Detroit today are scars from a half-century of population loss. Thousands of families fleeing the city for homes and better schools in the suburbs have left behind them a concentration of poverty, blight and crime among the most vexing in the nation.
The census estimates are based on the government’s 2000 head-count, and take into account factors such as housing construction. Experts caution that they are imprecise, though the portrait they paint of Detroit is a city still grappling with deep population losses.
The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments estimated this month that Detroit’s population has continued to shrink, landing just above 906,000.
And communities along the fringes of Metro Detroit still set the pace for growth, adding thousands of residents each year even as the area’s overall population stayed mostly unchanged — a phenomenon demographers call the “urban doughnut.”
“This is the same thing that’s been going on for years,” said Brookings Institution demographer William Frey, who has studied population trends in Michigan. “The doughnut is getting wider, and the hole in the middle is getting bigger.”
Still, it’s not clear the new housing going up in Detroit will reverse that trend. Demographers say while families with children continue to abandon Detroit neighborhoods, many of the new lofts and condominiums downtown have been filled by single people or couples without kids. Even more of the new housing is being occupied by people moving from other parts of the city.
That’s what Premier Property Management President Robert Beale says is happening at Woodbridge Estates, a 47-acre mixed-income development of townhouses and condominiums going up beside the John C. Lodge Freeway near downtown. Of the hundreds of potential customers the company has seen, only about 10 percent come from outside the city.
“Right now, what we find is people just wanting to exchange housing,” he said.
Still, Shawn Jefferson, who lives nearby, sees promise in all the high-end building going on in the neighborhood. Woodbridge Estates sits atop what used to be one of the city’s worst public housing complexes. The neighborhood still has its share of burned-out, caved-in homes and overgrown lots.
“My daughter just turned 15. By the time she’s 26, Detroit will be the place to be,” Jefferson predicted. “It’s going to be better living here.”
City leaders are inclined to agree.
“It took decades to get where we are,” said Dick Blouse, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “It’s going to take decades to turn around. And we shouldn’t be impatient.”