Midtown incentives drive remaking of Detroit

Posted on February 16, 2011

Businesses, nonprofits lure young workers to live in city.

Rasheda Williams longs to return to Detroit to live in the city in which she grew up.

The information officer in Wayne State University’s marketing department lives in Royal Oak, but works in Midtown and is interested in participating in one of the new incentive programs to lure residents back to the city.

“I have so many friends who moved back to the city who grew up in the suburbs,” said Williams, 31. “They’re like, ‘Come back. We’re trying to make a difference here.’ So I have been having some friends challenging me.”

There are thousands like Williams working at Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State who planners hope will take advantage of cash incentives to move into the city through an initiative called “Live Midtown.”

It’s a piece of a larger program called “15 X 15” that hopes to attract 15,000 young people with a four-year degree or more to repopulate Detroit by 2015 that Gov. Rick Snyder touted in his State of the State address. The two initiatives are among a number of efforts to revitalize Detroit, including bringing light rail up Woodward Avenue, attracting more grocery stores and encouraging business to invest where new residents live.

The push for residents by foundations like the Hudson-Webber and Kresge — as well as Henry Ford, DMC and WSU that between them have more than 30,000 workers — comes at the same time city officials are working to consolidate residents into more populated areas through a program named the Detroit Works Project.

And last week, Mayor Dave Bing announced an incentive plan called “Project 14” to lure police officers back to the city by offering them $150,000 in housing renovation money and requiring only $1,000 down.

Karen Dumas, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said the city is making progress on improving public safety, and Project 14 is “another step in the right direction.”

“Whether it’s the city’s efforts or the Live Midtown initiative, we are all working together to make Detroit a better, safer and more competitive city,” she said. “Both of these initiatives are creative solutions to help attract new residents and improve the quality of life for existing residents.”

While Williams said the incentives “are great” and she’d be “right in the center of all the action,” she also admits the thought of moving back gives her pause. Crime and high costs for insurance are strong deterrents.

“The higher car and renter’s insurance, those will definitely be factors,” said Williams, adding she’ll decide this spring on whether to make the move. “Not only that, it’s kind of a safety issue with the car.”

Focusing on work force

For Live Midtown, at least $1.2 million is available this year with the two hospital systems and Wayne State donating $200,000 each and an additional $600,000 in matching money from foundations and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. The incentives to residents or potential residents include up to $25,000 over five years toward buying a house or cash for existing and new renters.

This works along with the “15 X 15” initiative supported by the Hudson-Webber Foundation seeking to improve living conditions in Detroit. The goal is to seek “young, talented Detroiters” to move to areas such as Eastern Market, Corktown and New Center.

With the city’s population dwindling since the 1960s and its perception of being unsafe, organizers and donors to the program believe the only way to grow the city is by focusing on a work force that anchors a location.

“Given the fact that half the population is gone, if you’re going to rebuild a core, how do you do it? We think that building up Woodward Avenue again is the way to go,” said Michael Duggan, president and CEO of DMC. “It’s important to us to spur the rebirth of the community from a residential perspective.”

Duggan said the goal of Live Midtown is to lure people to fill the vacant residential areas along the Woodward corridor so “it could create some momentum for the rest of the city.”

The program, he said, starts by targeting those most likely to live in Detroit and who spend much of their time in the area outside work.

“Somebody who lives in Sterling Heights and hasn’t been in Detroit in 20 years isn’t our likely target,” Duggan said. “But somebody who has been going to work down in Midtown every day for years and knows how safe it is, they are your most likely candidates to live here.

“It’s a better strategy than I’ve heard from anybody else.”

Safety a concern

Similar efforts have been successful in turning around Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia and can be the catalyst for urban housing growth, retail and added jobs, said Eugenie Birch, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is a national expert on city planning, urban living and research.

Birch, who also served on New York City’s planning commission in the 1990s, said Detroit must bolster safety and sanitation, schools and “the basic municipal services required in any neighborhood” to attract and keep potential urban residents.

But none of these incentive programs is a “gold rush,” Birch warned.

“If housing is attractive, if the neighborhood is safe, if the amenities are there, it can eliminate a commute for people who have odd schedules, which hospital workers have, you can certainly make it very attractive,” Birch said. “You do not rebuild these things overnight. You’ve got to have a comprehensive plan on how to do this.”

Some obstacles, organizers and planners admit, keeping suburbanites from moving into the city are higher insurance rates, the dearth of grocery stores and safety.

But Ed Potas, who is involved in planning the Live Midtown project through his U3Ventures organization, said Detroit is overcoming some of the negative perceptions of the city.

“It’s very diverse and not a one-way city,” Potas said. “Naturally, universities and hospitals tend to attract a melting pot of people. So where better to incentivize something than the area where everyone is involved already.”

Robert Green of Lincoln Park sees the advantages of moving to Midtown and plans to use the subsidy for an apartment. The 22-year-old anesthesia technician at Henry Ford hospital is attending Wayne County Community College. He plans to attend Wayne State, which is closer to his future home.

“Midtown is right next to work and you save a lot of gas money from here to Downriver every day,” Green said.

Safety, he said, is a “big issue” but he intends to live near a few friends who also are going to partake in the subsidy program.

“In my experience with coming downtown, I hardly ever see police officers doing anything downtown as far pulling people over, traffic stops,” Green said. “Maybe if the police were a little more involved, that would help.”

LEONARD N. FLEMING, The Detroit News