As Detroit’s population keeps falling, how did we get here?

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Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has said repeatedly that he should be judged on the city’s population growth. Detroit’s population has declined since the 1950s. (Bridge Michigan photo)

The results of the 2020 census are further proof that Detroit has been experiencing wildly uneven growth for more than a decade now.  

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The Motor City lost 10.5 percent of its population, or nearly 75,000 residents, between 2010 and 2020, according to the once-a-decade census count. Mayor Mike Duggan and others, such as Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, contend that the city’s population was woefully under-counted. 

Still, the 2020 census captures a time when the city was lurching toward bankruptcy and reeling from the subprime mortgage crisis. At the same time, a stunning revitalization was taking place in the heart of the city. 

Detroit defied expectations by quickly exiting Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Alliances of government, foundations, businesses and community groups tackled major issues such as blight.  More litigious battles have taken place over tax foreclosures, over assessments of homes and water shutoffs, but by the end of the decade some progress was achieved. 


There is a constant debate in the city about “two Detroits,” that the policies of the last decade benefited only a few at the expense of many. Because the census results may be the latest spark that keeps the argument going, here is a timeline of facts and key moments of the past decade that shape the Detroit population trends we are living with now. 

Detroit’s Black population has continued to decline because of cost of living and other factors, according to a 2019 report. (Detroit Stock City photo by Evan Gonzalez)

Mortgages vanish and downtown wins

  • January 2010 — Cash is king in Detroit home and condominium sales. In the first month of the decade, there were 462 cash sales of homes and condominiums and 23 mortgages, according to RealComp II. Cash sales are a continued fallout of the subprime mortgage crisis. The median sales price for a home is $13,638. 
  • June 2010 — Detroit Public Schools, under emergency financial management since 2009, reports a $363 million deficit for the fiscal year, a $144 million increase from the previous year. 
  • July 2010 — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan unveils a plan to relocate 3,000 Southfield workers to the GM Renaissance Center, doubling its downtown workforce. At the time, downtown had 48 big, empty buildings, according to a Detroit News analysis.
  • August 2010 — Online mortgage lender Quicken Loans Inc. (now called Rocket Mortgage) and five of its sister companies move 1,700 employees from Livonia into the Compuware building downtown. Quicken/Rocket founder Dan Gilbert hints plenty more workers and investments are coming. 
  • December 2010 — The first wave of tax foreclosures. An estimated 10,525 Detroit properties were seized by Wayne County in 2010 over owners’ unpaid property taxes for at least three years. 

Running out of money

  • March 2011 — The city’s population nosedives in the first 10 years of the 21st century, according to the decennial Census. The city’s 2010 population is 713,777. That’s a 100-year low and a 25 percent loss from 2000. Mayor Dave Bing vows to challenge the results, but the tally never changes. 
  • Nov. 16, 2011 — In a speech broadcast live by the major local television stations, Mayor Bing says the City will run out of cash by April 2012 and faces a $45 million shortfall by June. He calls for 10 percent pay cuts for all city workers, slicing pension benefits, implementing up to 1,000 layoffs and privatizing the Public Lighting Department. 
  • Dec. 2, 2011 — The legal path to bankruptcy begins. The State of Michigan launches a preliminary review of Detroit’s finances, citing the looming cash crunch. It finds the City has mounting debt with long-term liabilities estimated to be more than $12 billion.

Detroit’s population fell from 713,777 in 2010 to 639,111, according to the 2020 census results. (GooBingDetroit.com by Alex Alsup)

Bankruptcy, blight, and the rise of ‘greater downtown’ 

  • February 2013 — A Hudson-Webber Foundation-backed study documents the steady rise in new residents, businesses and overall investment taking place in Downtown, Midtown, New Center, Woodbridge, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park, Rivertown and Corktown. The 7.2-square-mile area is referred to as “greater downtown.” It’s attracting more affluent, educated residents than the rest of the city, the study finds.
  • July 18, 2013 — The City files for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history.
  • September 2013 — The Blight Removal Task Force is formed by the Obama administration. The goal is to devise a plan to remove every blighted property. The task force brings together government, foundations and private groups, some for the first time. An effort is launched to map all Detroit properties. 

The QLINE, a 3.3-mile streetcar that runs from downtown to Grand Boulevard, began running in 2017. (Shutterstock photo)

Mayor Duggan takes office, mass demolitions and water shutoffs begin

  • Jan.1, 2014 — Mayor Mike Duggan takes office. He dares the public to judge him on future population growth. “The single standard a mayor should be defined on is whether the population of the city is going up or going down,” he tells the Wall Street Journal. 
  • March 2014 — Mass water shutoffs begin. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says about 80,000 residential accounts owe a combined $43 million. The City pursues customers owing more than $150 or two months of bills. By the end of June, about 15,000 residences are without running water. 
  • May 2014 — The Blight Removal Task Force releases its findings: 84,641 properties are blighted or vacant. It may cost up to $2 billion to get rid of them all, its report says. At  least 40,000 properties need to be demolished. Tax foreclosures are identified as a major contributor to the problem. 
  • April 2014 — The Detroit Land Bank Authority becomes a major force. The Detroit City Council approves transfer of 16,399 City-owned residential structures to the quasi-public agency. The Land Bank also begins to pursue negligent land owners through lawsuits. Its inventory is made up mainly of tax-foreclosed properties. The authority soon becomes the city’s largest land owner.
  • Spring 2014 — With $50 million in federal Hardest Hit Funds, the City increases its demolition of properties, aiming for 200 demos a week. Most of the teardowns are in about 20 neighborhoods. 
  • September 2014 — A lawsuit attempting to stop water shutoffs fails. A federal judge rules that the City has the right to cut off water supply to residences due to unpaid bills. 
  • Dec. 10, 2014 — The City exits Chapter 9 bankruptcy. The City was able to reject and renegotiate its debt load of $18 billion with its creditors, labor unions and other stakeholders.
  • 2014 — The City shut off water to a total of 33,607 accounts throughout the year. 
  • 2014 — Just 490 Detroit homebuyers secure mortgages, out of 3,742 home sales for the year.

The 2020 census captures a time when Detroit was racked by property tax foreclosure. Since 2010, more than 120,000 properties have been auctioned. Tax foreclosure was also identified as a contributor to the city’s growing blight problem. (GooBingDetroit.com by Alex Alsup)

Peak foreclosures and a boom time

  • 2015 Detroit’s white population grew by nearly 8,000 residents in one year, according to the latest census estimates at the time. It is the first significant increase of the white population since 1950. 
  • 2015 — For the first time in five decades, Detroit becomes a city where more people rent instead of own their home, according to the latest census estimates. About 53 percent of Detroiters are renters. Black Detroiters once had some of the highest homeownership rates in the nation.
  • 2015 — Detroit foreclosures total 24,793 properties for the year. It will be the highest number of annual foreclosures of the decade.
  • July 2016 — The Detroit Public Schools system officially splits in two to escape overwhelming debt and plummeting enrollment. With $617 million in state aid, the old DPS collects taxes and pays down debt, while the new district, called the Detroit Public Schools Community District, focuses on education.
  • 2016 — It’s boom time in the 7.2 square miles of “greater downtown.” Since arriving six years earlier, Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock has invested nearly $2.2 billion in acquiring and renovating 80-plus properties downtown. Plans for 32 new restaurants and bars were unveiled in “greater downtown” throughout the year.
  • 2016 — Black Detroiters say wealthy, white residents are the main beneficiaries of the city’s ongoing revitalization, according to a survey by the University of Michigan’s Detroit Metro Area Community Study (DMACS). Overall, a third of Detroit residents view the quality of life in their neighborhood as staying the same, while the rest are evenly divided between perceiving their neighborhoods as improving or declining. 
  • 2017 — Downtown’s population hits a 30-year high, with 7,100 residents, a gain of 2,000 since 2010, according to a census analysis by the Downtown Detroit Partnership. An estimated 1,200 to 1,400 apartments are expected to open in the area throughout the year.  
  • June 2018 — Ford Motor Co. buys the vacant Michigan Central Station — long a symbol of Detroit’s decay — for $90 million and details plans for a $740 million renovation for its multiple Corktown properties. The automaker vows to make the train station and Michigan Avenue a hub of self-driving and electric vehicles. 
  • 2018 —  Mortgages steadily rebound, a sign of neighborhood revitalization. Nearly 1,300 home buyers took out mortgages in the city, a number not seen since before the Great Recession, according to RealComp II.
  • 2018 — The City of Detroit settled a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of four Detroit neighborhood associations, alleging the City made it too difficult for residents living in poverty to learn about, and qualify for, a property tax exemption. More than 100,000 properties have been foreclosed since 2011.
  • 2019 —  Detroit’s auto insurance rates are the highest in the nation, at an average of $5,414 a year, according to a Citizen’s Research Council paper.
  • 2019 — The think tank Detroit Future City releases a report detailing Black middle-class flight. Tired of high insurance, taxes, struggling schools and vacancy, among other challenges, the Black middle class has been leading the city’s population exodus since 2000. To ensure equitable growth, Detroit would have to gain 27,700 Black middle-class households. 
  • 2019 — Midtown’s population surpasses 20,000, a 19 percent rise since 2010, according to census analysis by Midtown Detroit Inc. 
  • December 2019 — The City has shut off water service for nonpayment to around 100,000 homes since 2014. 
  • December 2019 — A number of initiatives, including lawsuits, aimed at reducing tax foreclosures are having a big impact. There has been an 86 percent drop since 2015. There were a total of 3,351 foreclosures in 2019.

Downtown Detroit gained residents, new businesses and foot traffic as companies relocated to and grew in the city’s center. (Detroit Stock City photo by Leah Castile)

Demolitions continue, massive federal aid 

  • January 2020 — In the past six years, about 21,000 blighted structures have been demolished, and the Detroit Land Bank has sold 6,000 vacant houses that are rehabbed and occupied.
  • January 2020 — Tens of thousands of homeowners were overtaxed a total $600 million in property tax between 2010 and 2016, a Detroit News analysis finds. City officials say a state-ordered reappraisal of residential property in 2017 fixed the problem, but some advocates disagree. 
  • March 9, 2020 — The City and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announce a water service restoration program due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first 30 days, the State will cover the costs to restore water to residences. After that, customers can pay $25 a month until the end of the COVID lockdown. 
  • July 2020 — The ACLU of Michigan and other civil rights groups sue the City over water shutoffs, seeking a permanent ban.  
  • November 2020 — Voters approve a plan called Proposal N to borrow $250 million in Wall Street bonds, which will be repaid with taxpayer money, to continue mass demolitions and renovations of blighted and vacant homes.
  • Dec. 23. 2020 — Gov. Whitmer signs legislation banning water shutoffs until March 31, 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • December 2020 — Mayor Duggan says the City will extend the moratorium on residential water shutoffs through 2022, while working on a plan to end them permanently.
  • March 2021 — It’s announced that Detroit will get $826 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding. The City aims to use $250.2 million to offset the revenue shortfalls caused by COVID-19. It vows to use the rest to combat poverty by funding dozens of programs ranging from home repair to the digital divide to tax foreclosure prevention. 
  • March 2021 — The Gilbert Family Foundation announces they will pay the property tax debt of up to 20,000 low-income homeowners. It’s the first step of a $500 million investment aimed at building “economic opportunity” in neighborhoods.
  • July 2021 — Cash sales still reign when it comes to buying a home, but the number of mortgages steadily rises, according to monthly data by Realcomp II.  In July, Detroit had 191 cash sales of residences and 140 mortgages, according to RealComp II. The median sales price is $68,700. The increase in mortgages is aided by the Detroit Home Mortgage program, which helps homeowners bridge the gap between sales price and comps.
  • August 2021 —  Detroit’s population dropped by 74,000 residents, or 10.5 percent, since 2010, according to the 2020 Census. The loss of Black residents in the still majority-Black city was deep, with 93,361 fewer African-Americans compared to 2010. 

There was growth in the white, Latino and Asian populations. Duggan, Tlaib and others contend Detroit’s population was under-counted due to the Trump’s administration series of attacks on the census, which included cutting short the headcount by one month. There was also the COVID-19 lockdown.

Duggan vows a legal challenge. 

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