Investing in Us: Resident Priorities for Economic Mobility in Detroit
By Poverty Solutions’ Detroit Partnership for Economic Mobility team
As the memory of municipal bankruptcy fades from view, millions in community investment dollars currently circulate throughout Detroit, thanks to the efforts of leaders in the public, corporate, philanthropic, faith, and community development sectors. Grassroots leaders and resident organizations continue to invest both cash and sweat equity in the work needed to improve their neighborhoods. Across the city, these efforts are working to reverse decades of disinvestment and neglect at the hands of both political and structural forces, resulting in more streetlights, clean parks, and demolished vacant structures. Beyond infrastructure, the reach of available workforce, business, and early childhood development services expands each year.
Yet only 15% of residents think people in Detroit have benefited from public and private investments in the neighborhoods. Nearly half (46%) of residents think economic mobility is worse today than it was 20 years ago. And Detroit’s status as the poorest big city in the country has not changed in a decade, leaving nearly 1 in 5 households to survive on less than $10,000 a year.3 While decision makers continue to deploy dollars to improve economic opportunity and combat poverty in Detroit, we must also continue to understand how Detroit residents view the impact of these investments and how they would prioritize taking additional action to accelerate tangible change in their lives.
In a variety of public spaces over the past decade, Detroiters have grappled with questions about how community investment and neighborhood revitalization should happen in a resource-constrained city and shared their visions for a safe, healthy, equitable Detroit. These conversations often happen at the neighborhood level, within the context of neighborhood plans or district community meetings. Investing in Us unifies these views into a city-wide vision of economic well-being in Detroit, from the perspective of its residents. We think highlighting Detroiters’ shared ideas, across neighborhood lines, for how to reduce poverty and improve well-being can help drive policy and philanthropic innovation and complement existing place-based efforts. This report brings together the voices of residents and community leaders, outlining a set of interventions required to make dramatic change in Detroit, as told by those who know it best.
Investing in Us includes recommendations on the following topics: investing in economic stability, investing in resident power, and investing in valued communities.
Detroiters’ visions for economic mobility center on greater access to economic opportunities and more power to influence their lives and their communities in a city where health, well-being, and safety is found on every corner. While the details for how to achieve these goals may differ slightly by neighborhood, Detroiters share common ground on what’s needed to advance their communities and have spoken these truths for years, in a variety of settings.
Throughout our research, we heard that Detroiters want all to enjoy the basic elements of economic success — good jobs, quality education opportunities, accessible transportation options, and affordable expenses — and have seen progress over the last decade, but conditions for the average resident have not changed quickly enough. Systemic racism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination pervade the city, and residents demand change in what’s offered to their neighbors. “My people are just as smart, just as intelligent, got just as much drive as anyone in the world. But, the suppression of them is always coming to the end of the line, never getting a second thought, never getting that support system. … But [others] have second and third chances, because they have a support systems in their institutions, to keep them above that poverty line,” said one Northwest Detroiter. Residents’ ideas to promote economic success include both policy changes — reducing the burden of water bills, for example — combined with place-based and human services
investments, such as affordable rental housing and more post-secondary job training for youth. Across the city, many view Detroit’s oversupply of vacant land as an opportunity to develop a green jobs sector that puts residents to work in sustainable, low barrier-toentry work, while beautifying blighted communities.
Second, beyond basic resources, we heard that Detroiters want more power and control over the tools needed to determine their own path toward economic stability, like land and capital. There is great belief in the promise of small businesses and collective ownership initiatives to drive a Detroit where residents can build their own wealth and determine the future of their neighborhoods, but these efforts need more direct supports in a city where the median household earns less than $32,000 a year. Residents also point out that the lack of access to information about available resources is itself an obstacle to taking advantage of opportunity; we noticed in our research that residents sometimes suggested creating programs that already exist, which indicates the need for better outreach and communication strategies.
Residents don’t just want greater control over their own economic lives. They also demand more democratic neighborhood and economic development processes, and they critique programs “done for” rather than “done with.” “Find out what the residents need and want. And provide that, rather than tell the residents ‘This is what you’re going to get,’” said one focus group participant. Designing policy and programs with residents as partners leads to interventions that respond directly to their needs, which is particularly important to ensure the priorities of Detroiters from marginalized groups, such as residents with disabilities, are not ignored. We did observe several examples where residents’ voices were heard, such that policy or program changes were announced after Detroiters spoke out; city leaders should do more to communicate these wins to residents.
Lastly, Detroiters want to feel included in the city’s economic development efforts, which they observe as being uneven and targeted toward “six figure folks” or certain communities. “There are places you don’t have opportunities. … One side of town is different than the other side, and they get more over there than they get over here,” said one said one Aviation Sub resident. “So I think equality of opportunity is important.” Residents point to overall neighborhood neglect and overexposure to specific health and safety threats like blight and poor quality food as evidence that their communities are not of value to decision makers. By contrast, living in a valued community facilitates access to clean environments, health amenities, and safe spaces, among other necessities. To see these goals realized, Detroiters want greater investments in local infrastructure that support community health and safety, as well as more aggressive intervention to hold bad actors accountable.
Although their neighborhoods may lack sufficient services, many Detroiters take great pride in their neighborhood organizations and in the community connections they’ve built, which facilitate access to information, connection, and even financial support. Similarly, several of our co-authors emphasized the importance of relationships in their program models. They build physical spaces designed to nurture these relationships and utilize coaching techniques to leverage them for economic and educational success.
Residents’ visions for economic mobility in Detroit are expansive, and conversations about increasing economic mobility in the city should be too. Reducing poverty and growing stability in Detroit should begin with a focus on living-wage jobs, good schools, affordable housing, and accessible health care, among other foundations of economic well-being. But we must also invest in efforts to build resident power, nurture residents’ social networks, and ensure the equal inclusion of marginalized groups and neighborhoods in all of the above. Power and inclusion are essential elements of economic mobility; when residents demand to be heard and call out for their communities or identities to be considered, they are asking for what they and their families need to live stable and successful lives. The first step to advance more inclusive conversations about economic mobility is to take the time to consider what residents, community leaders, and local organizations have already shared and use future engagement efforts to further refine and co-design solutions. Second, those in power must include residents and community leaders in setting the agenda and facilitating conversations, not just providing feedback or answering surveys on pre-set topics. We hope that moving forward, city officials, funders, and service organizations renew their commitments to Detroiters as partners in the work of building a thriving city for all, where each resident has equal access to the resources and relationships they require to pursue economic stability and prosperity.