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Tess Vigeland: In 1950, Detroit was the country’s fourth largest city. Nearly two million people called it home. Today, the Motor City has less than half that number. But Detroit still spends close to $3 billion a year to provide city services, even in neighborhoods that are largely abandoned. So local officials are considering a radical idea: shut down whole swaths of the city and move residents from decaying neighborhoods to more viable areas.
Michigan Radio’s Sarah Hulett reports.
Sarah Hulett: Elaine Lovett’s neighborhood looks like a lot of Detroit. There are some well-kept homes, like hers. But not too far away, there are blocks with more vacant lots than standing homes. And some of those houses are abandoned eyesores. Lovett has lived in this neighborhood since 1965.
ELAINE LOVETT: This is the only neighborhood I know of in the city of Detroit where I can walk after dark. Nobody bothers us. This is one of the safest areas in the city.
But Lovett may soon be asked to leave the neighborhood.
Led by Mayor Dave Bing, Detroit officials have begun looking for ways to shrink the city. Detroit covers nearly 140 square miles. And the city has racked up a $300 million deficit providing services like street lights, fire protection, trash pick-up and police patrols.
Despite repeated requests for an interview, Bing did not comment for this story. But he told local radio station WJR, Detroit cannot afford to maintain services in every neighborhood. Bing said the city has no choice but to downsize.
DAVE BING: If we don’t do it, you know this whole city is going to go down. I’m hopeful that people will understand that. If we can incentivize some of those folks that are in those desolate areas, they can get a better situation. If they stay where they are, I absolutely cannot give them all the services that they require.
Bing’s plan is to consolidate residents into a limited number of neighborhoods. That way, the city can provide services more efficiently and cheaply. But it’s not clear which neighborhoods would be targeted, or how many people would need to relocate.
One idea is to downsize areas with the highest crime rates. Another possibility could be to close down neighborhoods next to the dozens of public schools scheduled to close this year. One of those schools is across the street from Elaine Lovett.
LOVETT: If that’s what they want to do with this area, fine. Buy me out of my upside-mortgage, OK, and let me go.
So far, there are no formal plans for how the city would carry out the downsizing — whether through incentives, buy-outs, or eminent domain. It’s also not certain how it would be paid for. Detroit plans to use $20 million from the federal government to help tear down 10,000 vacant buildings over the next three years. But the city will likely need more money, perhaps hundreds of millions more, to relocate residents.
And money won’t be the only challenge.
John Mogk teaches law at Wayne State University. He says there will certainly be some people who won’t want to leave their homes. And that could mean using eminent domain to force them out.
JOHN MOGK: In 2006 the state of Michigan amended its state constitution, and it prohibited the use of eminent domain to assemble land for economic development. It also made it more difficult to clear blighted neighborhoods.
Mogk says those changes could mean more litigation, and higher relocation costs. There could also be a political cost. Many residents have painful memories of Detroit’s previous attempts at urban renewal.
One of them is Ron Scott. He says his family was forced to relocate twice in the ’60s — first to make way for a new housing development, and again when planners decided to build Interstate 75. Scott says this latest plan sounds no different.
RON SCOTT: It’s just like the old reservations. You tell the Native Americans we’re going to give you land somewhere else, and you move them somewhere else, and then there’s no clear understanding as to what’s going to happen.
Detroit isn’t the first Rust Belt city to try downsizing. After its steel mills closed and many residents fled, Youngstown, Ohio, began offering incentives for remaining residents to move out of decaying neighborhoods.
But now, five years since the plan was adopted, not a single resident has taken the $50,000 relocation incentive.
In Detroit, I’m Sarah Hulett for Marketplace.