New U.S. Census Bureau data is calling attention to challenges holding back Detroit’s growth ahead of an annual gathering of business and political leaders where population decline is expected to be a major theme.
Estimates released in May show Detroit lost 7,791 residents from 2021 to 2022, dropping to 620,373 total. Mayor Mike Duggan plans to use his stage at the Mackinac Policy Conference to advocate for property tax reform and discuss strategies to drive growth in Michigan’s largest city, which has shrunk in population for the last 70 years.
Duggan is working on a proposal to institute a split-rate tax system, also known as a land value tax, that would impose a higher rate on land and lower rate on structures. It would require changes in state law, but policy experts say the reform would provide immediate tax relief to residents while discouraging speculators from sitting on undeveloped land.
The Citizens Research Council of Michigan is assessing the state’s population challenges in a series of research papers. CRC President Eric Lupher said reversing Michigan’s population decline is possible, given the right policy changes and investments.
Lupher said Detroit needs to take a multi-faceted approach. That includes improving education outcomes, job opportunities and public health, rebuilding aging housing and offering quality public services like reliable transportation, clean water and safe neighborhoods.
“It’s getting back to what government is supposed to be doing, creating a quality of place that isn’t the butt of jokes, but is attractive in the way places like Denver, Seattle and Nashville have become,” Lupher said. “Quality of place starts with taxes for the City of Detroit; how they get the tax system more in line with surrounding communities so it’s not so much a burden to live in the city.”
Strategies to retain college graduates and recruit new residents will play heavily into presentations at the annual gathering of business and political leaders on the island. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is anticipated to announce a new commission focused on population growth, education and infrastructure.
Jobs of the future
The census data places Detroit as America’s 29th-largest city, narrowly dropping behind Memphis, Tennessee, by 683 people. The data crowns Memphis as the largest majority-Black city, though census figures show Detroit still has more Black residents overall, and a higher percentage of Black residents.
Duggan, who told voters to judge his performance as the city’s first white mayor since the 1970s by whether he reverses a population slide that started in the 1950s, has publicly challenged the census numbers. Duggan filed a lawsuit last year and is fighting to obtain formulas used by the federal agency to calculate its estimates.
“If I turn out to be wrong, I’ll admit I’m wrong,” Duggan said. “But I’m driving around this city every day watching people move into vacant houses and building apartments. I’m confident we know where we’re going.”
More data released by the census Thursday shows the number of vacant housing units dropped by 30% from 2010 to 2020. The percentage of vacant housing units also decreased from 23% to 18%.
Detroit also has 39,257 fewer housing units compared to a decade ago. Those numbers largely reflect Duggan’s aggressive campaign to demolish blighted structures. The city has completed nearly 26,000 residential demolitions since 2014.
Detroit’s population has dropped in every census since 1950 from a peak of 1.8 million people. However, census data shows the decline is slowing down; Detroit lost 74,666 residents from 2010 to 2020 after losing nearly 237,500 people the prior decade.
“It’s young, mostly white people who are moving in and also a young but more African American population moving out,” said Donald Grimes, a regional economic specialist with the University of Michigan. “Basically Detroit will begin to look like other big cities, with a relatively affluent college-educated population. If you look at Atlanta, Chicago, New York, Seattle, the city is better educated by the suburbs. It’s the opposite in Detroit.”
Edward Lynch, director of research for Detroit Future City, said population loss isn’t even across the board. Targeted investments in select neighborhoods has driven growth, he said.
“You’re seeing the number of households go up in places like Livernois-Six Mile area, University District, Bagley, Palmer Woods, Grandmont Rosedale, East English Village,” Lynch said. “These are places that have seen substantial investment over the past decade. There’s opportunity to continue to build on those investments and build on the positive momentum that’s going on in these neighborhoods and continue to expand and build the demand for these places.”
Population loss isn’t unique to Detroit either. Twenty-four of Michigan’s 83 counties lost residents in the last year, and the state posted an overall decline of 3,400 people.
Twenty-two of the 50 largest U.S. cities lost population from 2021 to 2022. Only three cities had their population drop by a larger percentage compared to Detroit: New York, Philadelphia, Oakland and Portland.
Regardless, Detroit’s population slide impacts the distribution of federal funding. Every citizen is worth about $18,000 in federal funding for cities. It also has political implications and carries symbolic weight. Keith Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus, said the bottom line is Detroit needs to improve education outcomes and economic opportunity for its residents.
“It’s good the mayor is fighting for accurate numbers, and I applaud him for that because we don’t need to lose any money,” Williams said. “But when we get the money, we’ve got to make sure everybody is participating. I want to make sure Black people are participating in a positive way.”
Nailing down young residents
Meanwhile, many residents are planning for a future beyond Michigan. A new poll sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber found Black voters and people under 30 are more likely to see themselves moving out of Michigan in the next decade. Black voters expressed more optimism in the state’s trajectory, but 32% said they would likely live somewhere else in 10 years while 16% are undecided.
“In terms of young voters and Black voters, it says they’re optimistic that they do well in Michigan, but they are not wedded to Michigan,” said Richard Czuba, a pollster with Glengariff Group, which produced the survey. “There is this tremendous opportunity for policymakers in this state to nail these residents down in Michigan before they hit their 30s and settle in.”
Census figures show 43% of Detroit’s population is under 30.
University of Michigan researchers project Detroit’s population to drop 3.6% by 2050 while the rest of Wayne County and Michigan’s total population is expected to grow. Grimes said development of Ford’s Michigan Central Station research campus and other automotive investments could provide a path to future growth.
Detroit leaders have a vision for the region as the next tech hub, with Duggan predicting the “Detroit will pass” Silicon Valley in the battle for attracting automotive investments.
U-M research suggests the successful transition of Detroit’s Big Three automakers to electric vehicles will have major implications for the success of Michigan’s economy in the next few decades. Lupher said Detroit’s historic dependence on the auto industry contributed to the situation the region faces now.
“For so long it was a strong point that made Detroit a prosperous city and Michigan one of the wealthiest places, but then when things got bad in the first decade of the century things got really bad and it contributed a lot to the exodus of 18 to 35 year olds,” Lupher said. “What we’ve been watching in the last couple of years is a pursuit of the autos again in Detroit, in Corktown, certainly around TechTown. We have a labor force that may not be capable of filling some high-tech jobs … There needs to be a real eye kept on what are the other jobs of the future.”
Ashley Williams Clark, vice president and director of DFC’s Center for Equity, Engagement and Research, said investments in electric vehicles shouldn’t divert focus from other fast-growing industries that create good-paying jobs.
“There’s this focus on advanced mobility, but in our research we also saw large amounts of growth in the healthcare industry, in other occupations like accountants, auditors, sales representatives, loan officers, teachers,” Williams Clark said. “Regardless of the field, we should be thinking about jobs that offer pathways into the middle class. Good, well-paying jobs that are growing in terms of number as well as what they pay people.”
Grimes said Detroit has emphasized the auto industry too much.
“We need a more diversified economy,” Grimes said. “There will be some spinoff in the technology that comes out of the shift to electric vehicles, but the big question is whether that will even stay in Michigan. We had much more certainty under traditional vehicles that white collar activity would stay in Michigan.”
Economic growth hasn’t closed disparities in wages. Williams Clark said creating thriving neighborhoods that attract and retain residents starts with improving access to good-paying jobs. It’s not just about reducing unemployment, which has reached its lowest point since 2000.
A DFC report found Black and Hispanic Detroiters have less access to the fastest-growing jobs, which suggests Detroit’s economy is not improving equitably.
The median income in Detroit is $36,140, according to the census, compared to $63,498 for Michigan as a whole. Williams said the wage gap is one reason why longtime residents don’t feel like they have access to opportunities in Detroit. He said that could be why some leave Detroit in search of a better chance of success in Oakland and Macomb counties.
A five-year economic forecast by the University of Michigan suggests Detroit residents can look forward to more job opportunities and higher wages. But while the average job in Detroit is expected to pay $90,700 by 2027, the average Detroit resident will only earn $47,500.
A general distrust
Housing and safety are other major issues impacting residents’ willingness to stay in Detroit.
Joe Marra moved to Detroit’s Bagley neighborhood from New Jersey in 2015, where he still resides today. Marra said it’s been nearly impossible to get police to respond to crime in his neighborhood. Marra had a $25,000 skid steer stolen from a parked trailer but was turned away at the 12th Precinct when he tried to report the theft. A neighbor left the city after a pharmacy was robbed at gunpoint.
“You have to realize how discouraging this is,” Marra said.
At the same time, Marra said taxpayers are being slapped with blight tickets for minor issues or when someone illegally dumps on their property.
Marra said it’s likely that the recent census count is inaccurate. He didn’t fill it out, citing a general distrust of government that is common among Detroiters.
Laina Leflore, a lifelong Detroiter who rehabilitates houses through her business DE Fox Enterprises, said she also knows people who didn’t respond to the census because they don’t want to interact with the federal government.
Leflore tried to buy a house across the street from her home on the northeast side, but said it was scooped up by an out of town investor. The house recently caught fire and is badly burned, creating an eyesore for the neighborhood.
“Everybody on this block is a homeowner, if I don’t have my grass cut I feel a certain kind of way,” Leflore said. “These are older people who are holding on to neighborhoods and have to deal with this. I worked hard at bringing up this street. It didn’t have any streetlights and I took the time to be in city meetings to make the change. The people can’t just be doing it by themselves. The city needs to stop harassing the citizens who are staying and start getting on the people out of state.”