Urban renewal left behind lush vacant lots with signs that read “for sale”—and a lasting impression on many U.S. legacy cities like Detroit and other Rust Belt cities. The New Deal policy that attempted to revitalize the economy after the Great Depression had high hopes of redeveloping deindustrializing cities post-World War II. But instead, by clearing so-called “blighted” communities, usually without a relocation plan, it often made way for empty aspirations of halting decline and attracting development opportunities.
In Detroit, more than forty thousand residents were slated for displacement from urban renewal by 1963; seventy percent of them Black. The policy designed for downtown development made no guarantee of rehousing those who lost their homes. In Detroit, people were looking for housing “in a city where there is no housing,” said J.W. Smith, a tenant council president who opposed renewal in the city during the mid-twentieth century. Not only was housing for many lost, but the vibrant social fabric of many communities was displaced, too.
Residents today have similar concerns about housing displacement. Efforts to reignite the once-booming economy have benefited those in proximity to Downtown, and many Detroiters in the outlying neighborhoods continue to face a lack of opportunity and poverty. Redlining, discriminatory real estate practices, and a wave of foreclosures following the Great Recession, among other factors, have led to lower rates in Black homeownership and a lack of affordable housing throughout the city. These images tell a story of changing neighborhoods and the fraying of the social fabric for some.
Despite zoning ordinance efforts to ensure developers allot twenty percent of planned housing units for affordable housing, many residents still cannot afford them. Housing is considered affordable when thirty percent (or less) of one’s income goes toward housing costs; currently, up to seventy percent of Detroiters spend up to half of their median income on housing. Urban renewal laid the grounds for the market we have today, and government incentivized investment opportunity zones may be perpetuating exclusionary practices.
These days, much of downtown Detroit is seeing some of the development it hoped to see decades ago. But what about the rest of the city? The developing neighborhoods are causing rental rates to rise, impacting the same communities that were displaced decades ago during urban renewal. Many outlying neighborhoods still have high rates of dilapidated vacant homes posing health risks and lack of accessible opportunity. Some argue that the “comeback” of the city is an uneven one.
Stable housing builds stable communities, and stable communities build flourishing cities. Through community engagement and collaborative planning, resilient neighborhoods cultivate and, in turn, incentivize growth organically. As Detroit continues to develop, it is essential that investors carefully consider the city’s historical context. New development should enhance neighborhoods; not destroy them.
A for sale sign reads, “COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE” near an older home in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood