Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, left, and Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr. hold a press conference on a federal lawsuit challenging 2021 U.S. Census population estimates during a Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, press conference at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

The City of Detroit on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit disputing what it called a “racially-biased undercount” of residents in 2021 census population estimates that have a major impact on Detroit’s federal funding and political power. 

Mayor Mike Duggan is seeking court intervention for the release of data showing how the U.S. Census Bureau calculated 2021 estimates that found Detroit lost 7,150 residents since 2020. 

The Census Bureau suspended a process cities previously could use to challenge annual population estimates, which Duggan said leaves Detroit with no choice but to sue. 

The lawsuit, the mayor noted, is separate from the city’s ongoing challenge of the 2020 decennial head count, but Duggan said he’s prepared to sue again if that challenge is denied. 

“The bottom line is this: It’s now clear that the data coming out of the U.S. Census Bureau is completely divorced from reality, and we intend to prove that,” Duggan said during a Tuesday press conference at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. “We’re looking forward to our opportunity in court.”

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan targets the U.S. Department of Commerce and Census Bureau. Detroit law firm Fink Bressack was tapped to serve as counsel for the city alongside the Detroit Law Department. 

“It’s going to be relatively simple,” Duggan said. “A federal court is going to look at this and say ‘did (the Census Bureau) violate their own rules by failing to have an appeal process? Is this discriminatory and should (Detroit) be able to see the formula?’ 

“I have no doubt, once we see the formula, it will be obvious to everybody where the miscalculation was,” he said. 

While the 2021 estimates show Detroit is home to 632,464 residents, Duggan said he expects the number is closer to 680,000. Still, that’s less than Detroit’s population estimate from a decade ago, which reflected a consistent decline in population since 1950.

The Census Bureau already has acknowledged it undercounted minority groups across the country in 2020. The census reported a 5% undercount of the Hispanic or Latino population and a 3.3% undercount of the Black population, while overcounting the white population by 1.6%.

The Census Bureau said in a Tuesday email that it does not comment on pending litigation.

Detroit’s lawsuit states, based on the city’s demographics, the census missed more than 20,000 Detroiters. The city’s population is 77.1% Black and 7.7% Hispanic, according to the census.

Census data is used to determine the number of seats each state holds in Congress and how more than $1.5 trillion in federal funds are distributed to states and local communities every year. Detroit relies on federal funding to deliver important social services, including nutrition assistance, housing programs, community development grants, Medicaid, early childhood education, transit programs and others. 

It’s too late to change how congressional seats were divided among the states, or how political districts were drawn. However, any changes stemming from updated census counts will influence future population estimates and surveys that help distribute federal resources.

Since 2010, Detroit has received more than $3.5 billion annually in federal funding tied directly to population estimates. Duggan said Detroit stands to lose “several million” dollars – some estimates project $150 million in lost federal funding – since the census recorded a decline of 74,666 residents between 2010 and 2020.

“We’re just trying to get our fair share of the money,” Duggan said. “The way it works right now, we’re going to spend the next decade with the residents of the city not getting the funding they deserve because somebody’s not doing the job.”

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, joined Duggan and Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr. for Tuesday’s announcement. Lawrence, who serves on a congressional appropriations committee, said Detroiters won’t get the money they deserve if the city’s population is undercounted.

“This is just a personal insult to communities that are so needy of the tax dollars that we pay,” Lawrence said. “When you send your taxes to the federal government, there’s an expectation from every citizen of the United States of America that it will fulfill the needs of our community.”

Duggan added it’s hard to believe the city is shrinking when 14 large-scale residential projects are being built. Additionally, data from several other agencies shows Detroit gained residents between 2020 and 2021. 

United States Postal Service records show a net increase of 4,475 residential addresses in Detroit from April 1, 2020, to July 1, 2021. Since the census estimates 2.47 people live in each home, Duggan said that could mean 11,053 people were added. 

DTE Energy reported a net increase of 7,544 residential households signed up for service during the same time period. Using the same calculation, that could mean 18,634 new residents are receiving service from the energy utility. 

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department reported a net increase of 6,964 active residential water accounts over that time and Detroit Land Bank Authority data shows 1,583 previously vacant houses in Detroit became occupied. 

The city argues incorrect population estimates could “hinder Detroit’s growth by painting a misleading picture that people are leaving the city,” according to the court filing. The lawsuit states that such a narrative discourages private investment and threatens to slow the momentum of the city’s growth.

Duggan argued that the Census Bureau “managed to screw up” the 2020 and 2021 estimates in different ways.

The 2021 lawsuit is focused on how the Census Bureau calculated its annual population estimate. The 2020 challenge is focused on whether census field workers failed to visit Detroit households and create an accurate count. 

The U.S. Office of Inspector General released a report last week raising concerns about the quality of data collected during the 2020 census. The report found issues with how the census followed up with households that didn’t not provide information via the Internet, postal mail, or telephone. Duggan said concerns about the door-to-door operation is the “centerpiece” of Detroit’s 2020 challenge.  

Detroit, Boston, Austin, and Memphis are among the largest U.S. cities challenging their 2020 census results. Several dozen smaller cities, towns and villages also have filed challenges. Cities have until the end of June 2023 to submit evidence for their challenges and won’t hear whether they were successful until Sept. 30, 2023.

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