Racial divisions are a major contributor to the decline of Detroit. White flight started after World War II and continued. There was a late spike in flight from the city after 2000. That’s when City of Detroit employees no longer had to live in the city. That’s led to lost wealth, lost tax revenue, and blighted neighborhoods.
Even when Detroit was majority white, racial lines were strictly drawn.
“You can’t underestimate the intensity of that segregation in housing and the role that it played in dividing metropolitan Detroit by race,” said Thomas Sugrue.
He is the author of the definitive book on why Detroit declined, The Origins of the Urban Crisis.
“Large sections of Detroit were home to almost all African Americans and vice versa, large sections of the outlying neighborhoods in Detroit and the suburbs were nearly entirely white,” Sugrue said.
For years some white firefighters and police violated a city ordinance requiring city employees to live in Detroit. Some even bragged about having a house in the suburbs while keeping a house or apartment in the city where they got their mail.
Other white city employees who followed the rules often lived in neighborhoods near the city limits of Detroit, close to the suburbs.
MorningSide, on Detroit’s east side, is one of those edge-of-the-city neighborhoods. Back in 1993, Marylin Nash Yasbeck opened a pharmacy there.
“When I came over, we had a lot of firemen, there were a lot of police officers, and there were a lot of teachers who were in this area, you know, in terms of jobs and everything. The homes were owned. Maybe some were renting. And at some point it changed over. There was a lot of movement out of the neighborhood. So, the wealth did go,” she said.
That was almost 20 years ago. Bill McGraw reported for the Free Press at the time and covered the Detroit residency requirement.
“A significant portion of the police and fire departments lobbied for years in Lansing and fought really hard to get the legislature, which controlled this issue, to do away with residency,” McGraw said.
Eighty cities across the state had residency requirements. White firefighters and police in Detroit and Flint lobbied hardest to end the practice.
In December 1999, the legislature passed the “Residency Act” which ended cities’ abilities to require their employees live in the city they served.
Bill McGraw notes this was not the most significant exodus of people from Detroit, but it had an impact.
“People were leaving Detroit those years for the usual reasons: they wanted what they thought would be a safer environment and better schools, for instance. It’s hard to say how much the ending of residency played a role, but it obviously contributed to the change of Detroit neighborhoods,” McGraw said.
With many of the Detroit police officers and firefighters leaving the neighborhoods for the suburbs, they turned a lot of their homes into rentals. Even that didn’t last in some cases. A locksmith in the MorningSide neighborhood said over the years, many of the owners got tired of the hassles of being landlords and simply abandoned their houses.
There’s been one more hit involving city employees. Those city employees who retired and stayed in their old neighborhood saw their pensions cut in 2014. Jackie Grant works with her neighbors in MorningSide, helping them avoid tax foreclosures. She says those pension cuts hurt.
“We were in bankruptcy, right, in the City of Detroit. And so, people that were already retired lost a good portion of pension which changed their whole financial future. That’s when I think a lot of homes began to be lost,” Grant said.
Detroit is actively recruiting more neighborhood people into the police and firefighting ranks. If successful, and if those recruits stay in Detroit, it will still be years before the neighborhoods start seeing a significant benefit.
Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.