Can a neighborhood tackle two of Detroit’s biggest problems — shrinking population and chronic disinvestment — by giving people cash to live there?
That was the question posed by the innovative Live Midtown program almost 10 years ago, right around when the U.S. Census reported another 25 percent population drop in Detroit. That pushed the number of residents to 100-year lows.
The initiative from Midtown Detroit, Inc. subsidized rents and mortgages for employees of three major institutions in hopes of attracting new residents; building a more dense and walkable neighborhood; and swapping commuter culture for one where workers both live and work in their community. But Live Midtown’s very effectiveness also unleashed concerns about gentrification, and who exactly is considered a valued part of Detroit’s future.
Nearly a decade after the incentives debuted, bringing hundreds of new residents to the area, the central city is radically transformed. Midtown is filled with shops, restaurants, pocket parks and massive new developments, from Little Caesars Arena to The Mid. Even as Detroit’s population continues to decline, Midtown’s population jumped 15% between 2011 and 2016. Nearly all available apartments are occupied and rents steadily rise. The incentives are long gone.
Stay Midtown, a second and much smaller incentive program to support low-income residents, is now expiring, too. It helped 150 renters with cash assistance for three years as housing costs in the neighborhood outpaced incomes. But as the Detroit Free Press reported last month, they are now losing their subsidies, and many are debating whether they will have to move.
Their dilemma underscores the need for a reckoning of the original subsidies. They fueled revitalization and changed the demographics of Midtown, as rents rose far faster than incomes for the area’s many low-income residents. As Detroit struggles to interrupt decades of disinvestment without replicating historic patterns of displacement, the future is uncertain. While the city has seen tremendous redevelopment, which itself is subsidized, Detroit still has one of the highest poverty rates in the country.
‘A secret man behind the curtain’
Lauren Hood, a Midtown resident and equitable development strategist, remembers spending her “formative drinking years in the Cass Corridor,” wishing there were more people around, more options, more places to go. Today, she says she “loves living in Midtown.”
But, she added, certain dynamics “allowed me to be here. “Yes, I’m a black person and a native Detroiter, but I also went to private school and have a master’s degree.” She knows others who avoid the area for fear of being sized up.
Midtown’s white population grew by more than 82% during the incentive program’s first five years, while the African American population declined by about 2%, according to a Bridge analysis of U.S. Census data.
Incentive programs are tricky, Hood said, because they have the feel of “a secret man behind the curtain determining who lives in the city.” If organizers want to vanquish vacancy and fight depopulation, they should examine “where [they] were complicit” in creating the problem in the first place. Hood’s parents, for example, lived in Northwest Detroit for decades, holding out as the second-to-last family on their block, before crime finally drove them out.
“We can address vacancy by stopping it before it happens,” Hood said. “We didn’t work to keep [existing residents] from vacancy, but then, it’s a different kind of people.”
Affording a historic house in your 20s
Live Midtown launched in 2011, a hinge year for Detroit, about equidistant between the bankruptcies of two auto companies and the city itself. The foreclosure crisis cut deep. Detroit had lost far more residents than New Orleans, which had suffered from Hurricane Katrina.
The idea came from a consulting group that specializes in planning for anchor districts. Midtown Detroit, Inc., a nonprofit development organization, administered it.
Live Midtown partnered with Wayne State University, the Detroit Medical Center, and Henry Ford Health System. Each institution made a five-year, million-dollar commitment. Further funding came from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and the Kresge and Hudson-Webber foundations. Henry Ford ran its program an extra year.
Altogether, 1,332 people signed on for Live Midtown, 791 of them new to the city. Detroit, once a city of homeowners, has become a city of renters, and this is reflected in MDI data from the first five years of the program. Nearly all participants, 92%, received rental subsidies: $2,500 for one year, and, if renewed, $1,000 for a second year. Another 101 people purchased a home with a $20,000 five-year forgivable loan.
Residents also could receive aid for exterior improvements on homes bought before the incentives became available, but only 1% of Live Midtown participants took advantage of this.
The program boundaries eventually stretched further north, encompassing the single-family homes in Virginia Park, Boston-Edison and parts of the North End. The expansion offered home-buying participants larger and more diverse housing options—a critical point since, especially at the time, the choices in Midtown proper were limited. It also synchronized with how MDI has pushed the borders of its original neighborhood to reach more anchor institutions. (MDI was previously known as the University Center Cultural Association, a more narrowly tailored organization, before merging with New Center Council the same year the incentives debuted.)
Two-thirds of Live Midtown participants came from outside Detroit during the program’s first five years, mostly from the suburbs (38%), with about a quarter from outside the state or country. About 33% came from Detroit.
Brittany Fillmore Stoeckel, a 32-year-old nurse practitioner, was one of the newcomers. She signed up for the incentives after graduating from Oakland University. With a job at the Detroit Medical Center, she wanted to move into the city.
“Usually right out of undergrad, no one buys a house,” Stoeckel said. But her historic townhouse—four bedrooms, 1,800 square feet, built in 1895—was available for $100,000, an uncommonly low price, especially with $20,000 in incentives.
As Liz Tintinalli, a real estate agent remembers, homes were priced so low, the $20,000 subsidy meant buyers “pretty much had the money in hand [for a down payment] without much else needed.” But at the same time, she remembers a handful of people who received incentives defaulted, and then lost their properties to foreclosure.
“It seems kind of strange,” she said. But some participants weren’t prepared for fees and dues at their new homes. Incentive programs also can’t stave off unfortunate life changes. And many struggled to get loans to rehab homes purchased with the incentives.
Upon advice from her dad (“everyone in their 20s is renting; they may as well pay you”), Stoeckel took in roommates to help pay the mortgage. When she got a job at Henry Ford, the incentives followed her. Her now-husband moved in, as did a goldendoodle named Lucy. Their house is now worth well more than its purchase price, which made it possible to leverage for “pretty dramatic renovations.”
Nearly a decade later, “the house is such a blessing,” she said. Neighborhood walkability is still a big appeal, she said, but, ironically, both Stoeckel and her husband now work in the suburbs.
Subsidies fueled population growth as Midtown became whiter
Like Stoeckel, 73% of Live Midtown participants in the first five years were in their 20s or 30s. Individuals’ incomes were typically between $30,000 and $50,000, well above the median household income citywide.
African Americans received 39% of incentives, while about a third of recipients were white. As a whole, Detroit is about 79% black, 14% white, 8% Hispanic and 2% Asian, according to the most recent Census estimates. White people get half of Detroit’s mortgages. Southeast Michigan remains the most segregated region in America.
Most of the Live Midtown participants came through Wayne State (43%) during the five years when all were on board, followed by DMC (32%) and Henry Ford (25%.)
Henry Ford’s enthusiasm led to it sponsoring an extra year of incentives for its employees, said Tom Habitz, an urban planning specialist at the hospital. It was also generous in defining employee eligibility. Part-time and contingent staff members qualified, as did those who worked at locations outside the city.
There were stricter employee guidelines at the other institutions, which, as Lauren Hood points out, means people who didn’t make a certain amount of money or have a certain level of education were effectively de-selected for Midtown residency.
The Live Midtown experiment was over by 2017, and nowadays, the neighborhood easily attracts people willing to pay market rate or higher. One newer MDI development is currently selling “eco homes” listed above $500,000.
“I think everybody agreed that conditions were completely different than what they were when we started,” Habitz said.
Live Midtown’s ongoing influence: community health benefits and copycat programs
The incentive program was at least as transformational for the hospital as for the neighborhood. Employees enjoyed walking and biking to work, and some “really upgraded their living situation and they were crediting their employer for making that happen,” Habitz said. In an industry with “major issues of turnover,” this was “invaluable.”
What’s more, “a locally residing workforce pays off in ways that are less obvious,” especially for a hospital that felt its community relationships had thinned. “We’d really gotten to a place of imbalance,” Habitz said.
Henry Ford had about 10,000 employees, and a “very small percentage” lived close to work, in comparison to peer institutions in other cities. Staff and patients had few shared experiences. This, Habitz said, affected the quality of care because, among other reasons, patients are more likely to follow health care recommendations that come from people with a common cultural background.
“It’s not a PR thing; that’s an actual health outcome thing,” he said.
Investing in the city—including a sustained effort for more local hiring and local purchasing—is in keeping with the hospital’s health care mission, Habitz added, since a community isn’t healthy “if you’re not considering the upstream determinants of health.”
Live Midtown “definitely had an impact on the neighborhood and has served as a catalyst for some of the transformation,” said Chris Hughes, the data manager for Midtown Detroit, Inc. who supervised the program. “But it was just one piece. There are many efforts that have and continue to contribute to moving the neighborhood forward.”
Live Midtown’s legacy goes beyond the bounds of its own program. It inspired the development of Live Downtown, a mirror-image initiative led by Downtown Detroit Partnership. It launched later in 2011 with the same five-year roadmap, subsidizing residents of downtown, Corktown, Eastern Market, Lafayette Park, Midtown and Woodbridge. It partnered with corporations, like DTE Energy and Blue Cross Blue Shield, in contrast to Live Midtown’s hospitals and colleges.
“The Quicken Loans part of it alone had more participants than our entire Live Midtown program,” said Hughes.
More than 2,000 people participated in Live Downtown, according to DDP’s website. Numbers from the first year showed that 88% of participants were renters. About 72% had moved from the suburbs and 23% already resided in the city. DDP plans to launch a revamped “Live Detroit” incentive program this year, but they have not yet released additional details.
Incentives also showed up across the city border. In an effort to attract young residents, up to $400 a month in rental subsidies are available to college students who live in Grosse Pointe Park.
From a cooperative housing market to a “cutthroat” one
Overall, Liz Tintinalli, the real estate agent, said that Live Downtown and Live Midtown were “more good than bad.” She thinks of the era of the incentive programs as a time when the local housing market was more cooperative.
“We were all feast or famine, all busting our butts and working together to get deals to happen.” In a city that was built, literally, for systemic segregation, redlining in real estate business persists, with loans still difficult to come by throughout most of the city.
Now, with increased prices and demand in the central neighborhoods, “it’s definitely more cutthroat,” Tintinalli said.
She expressed concern about how the original “live-work” vision is served when Midtown housing prices increase out of proportion even to the wages of professionals once targeted by incentives.
“It was a way of providing affordable housing for people to live close to work,” she said. “That was the whole point of the incentives. If rents continue to go up, it’s not going to do that anymore. Was [live-work] just a motto for a five-year period?”
Five years after residential subsidies launched in Detroit, the city itself began testing them out. The Detroit Home Mortgage initiative attempts to fill the notorious appraisal gap that stunts home ownership, and a home repair loan program gives approved applicants a zero-interest opportunity to invest in their properties. The city has also used landlord subsidies to stave off displacement of some tenants, and it offers price breaks to city and school employees who purchase a home through the land bank.
The housing incentives worked — but left low-income residents struggling to afford their neighborhood
Stay Midtown emerged in 2016 as a kind of corrective to displacement concerns. It offered residents up to $125 a month, or $4,500 over a three-year period, to stay where they are living. Separately, MDI’s housing development program created 420 new units between 2014 and 2018, with 30 percent of them designated as “affordable.”
MDI’s Chris Hughes described Stay Midtown as an effort “to bridge affordability issues,” especially for “longtime residents dealing with undue increases and cost burdens.”
To qualify for Stay Midtown, households had to earn between 30 and 80% of the median area income, with housing costs exceeding 30% of their budget (the federal guidelines for an affordable rent share). Of the first 81 participating households, according to an MDI briefing, 14 had 100% of their cost burden eliminated. Most had between 25 and 74% lifted.
Unlike its predecessor, there were no employer requirements. Participants were 88% Black with household median income under $24,000, which is more reflective of the city overall than the Live Midtown cohort.
But the program has maxed out at 150 households, and is sunsetting as participants hit the three-year mark. That’s about 11% of the participants who benefited from Live Midtown, which had five times more, and then some, in funding. The $800,000 fund for Stay Midtown was backed by Capital Impact Partners, and the Kresge and Ford Foundations.
Midtown Detroit, Inc. is now helping Stay Midtown households relocate to affordable units with income thresholds in the neighborhood and nearby Brush Park, executive director Sue Mosey told the Free Press.
Detroit’s urgent task: writing a new script, for development without displacement
In any residential development program, equitable development advocate Lauren Hood urges for a model that brings “different kinds of people at the table,” not necessarily with certain kinds of education or professional backgrounds, but with the “practical experience of living in a transitional community.”
“People at the table who, you know, lived in the North End for the past 20, 30 years, and then asking, ‘What things do you need help with?’ … ‘What would it take for you to stay here?’ And then putting it in place.”
Detroit has lost more than half its peak population, allowing an unusual opportunity for redevelopment to avoid the usual script of gentrification, where new residents displace existing communities. There is literally enough space for all—or there could be, if all are valued.
“We have a very small window of being able to right this ship,” Hood said, “or we’re going to be like all the other gentrified cities really quickly. We’ve got to get our shit together real soon.”
The nation “is still looking to us to tell them what to do,” Hood added, referring to Detroit. “The nation is like, ‘wow, this black city is transforming.’ We lost Harlem, DC, Brooklyn, we lost all these black spaces. They’re looking to us like the last vestige. We have a tremendous opportunity to do it differently.”