Week Three of Detroit Bankruptcy: One Year Later


The judge, the emergency manager and the mayor always agreed on one aspect of the bankruptcy case: city services needed to improve for residents.
Here’s the progress — and setbacks — Detroit has made.

By Nancy Derringer
Bridge Magazine, Detroit Journalism Cooperative

People, the hundreds of thousands who left over the decades, were where Detroit’s decline started. And as the city starts its comeback post-bankruptcy, the people are where its successes and failures will be reflected. First-term mayor Mike Duggan has said it many times: Judge his performance on whether Detroit is still losing population in a year or two. But turning that tide is a matter of doing many jobs much better than they have been done in the past.

Mass transit. Blight removal. Job growth. Business opportunity. All were discussed as the city created it’s post-bankruptcy plan. All were part of city officials’ testimony at trial.

And all will play a part in encouraging people to move into or back to Detroit. The record of improvements and successes over the past year is mixed.

More buses are rolling on the streets, a welcome relief from the days when schedules were only guesses and hours might pass between stops. Federal money helped put 80 new buses on the street, and now 190 are in service every day, Duggan says. Ridership and customer satisfaction will follow, the city hopes. Drivers signed a new contract promising bonuses contingent on increased ridership.

Blight removal is more of a mixed picture. Land-bank sales of dilapidated but salvageable houses via online auction is a success, enough so that the program has been expanded to include side lots and a new “rehabbed and ready” segment, where the city and partners do the fix-ups and sell them, via Realtors, to buyers who might want to participate in the program but don’t have the time or skills to take on such ambitious projects.

Listen to Craig Fahle
“We put $60-$70,000 into some of these,” says Craig Fahle, director of public affairs for the Detroit Land Bank Authority. “And we put them at a price that we think might build some comps in the neighborhood. …We realize there was a market for that.”

However, the central task of blight eradication – actually tearing down and removing structures beyond repair – hasn’t gone as smoothly. Demolition, the city has found, is one task where there are no economies of scale. The more you do, the more expensive it can get, for a variety of reasons. Asbestos containment is critical when multiple houses are coming down in a neighborhood. And there have been shortages, mainly of fill dirt.

Listen to Mayor Duggan
As demolitions increased, “we used up every bit of dirt within 20 miles of Detroit. We were going out to Rockwood and Port Huron and Lake Orion to go get dirt. …We brought two million cubic yards of dirt into this city in the last 18 months to fill holes.”

But services and landscape are secondary to the most urgent need in the largely impoverished city: Jobs. The flourishing of downtown business is perhaps the most-covered story in the city, but the fate of smaller, less centrally located businesses is just as critical.

“Opportunity Black” was the first event put on by the Young Entrepreneur Society of the Detroit Black Chamber of Commerce, attracting hundreds of established and aspiring business owners and young professionals to share ideas, problems and possible solutions. The critical issues? Capital. Credit. Collateral. It’s difficult to get a loan.

ProsperUS Detroit is one of a handful of programs that have emerged  to help set up entrepreneurs – mostly minorities – for success.

Listen to Kimberly Faison
“We really do have to approach this particular issue in a different way because Detroit has too much talent to continue to lose it to other places for lack of access,” says Kimberly Faison, ProsperUS director.

As all these moving parts start to work, independently and together, the picture of the city’s future will become clearer. Duggan lays out the stakes.

Listen to Mayor Duggan
“There’s a Financial Review Commission in place so if we run a deficit they have right to come back in and take control again. I am never going to let that happen,” he says. “I will tell you the truth because I’m never going to let somebody take control of this city again who’s not elected by the voters.”

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