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Lessons for Rochester development from Detroit's mayor 

Like a lot of people concerned about Rochester, I try to follow what other cities are doing to cope with the challenges we're facing here.

One of those cities is Detroit, whose problems dwarf ours. Since its peak in 1950, Detroit has lost more than 60 percent of its population. There are strong, beautiful neighborhoods, and there are block after block of vacant lots and boarded-up buildings. Downtown, there are spectacular, historic buildings full of people and businesses, and a few blocks away, equally spectacular buildings that have been deteriorating for years.

Concentrated poverty, a school district that many residents shun, income inequality: Detroit has all of that. It is also gaining a reputation as a city on its way back, attracting developers, businesses, and residents.

Several months ago, I came across a video of a speech by Detroit's mayor, Mike Duggan, outlining the principles he and his staff are using as their city builds its future. The speech was the keynote address at the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference, an annual gathering of Detroit-area business, political, and community leaders, hosted by the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. The audience, Crain's Detroit Business reported, was “a predominately white crowd of business and political elites.”

Duggan's speech, which you can watch online (search for "Duggan Mackinac speech") was clearly a marketing tool. But it began with a powerful, sobering lesson, tracing the history of housing policy in the US and in Detroit.

“The way Detroit looks today,” Duggan said, “is directly rooted in planning decisions that the leaders of this community made in the 1940s and 1950s.” And, he said, “unfortunately, many of those decisions were rooted in racial discrimination.”

Planning, zoning, development regulations, urban renewal, banking policies: government officials at the federal level and at the local level crafted policies and regulations that forced poor people out of their homes and neighborhoods and limited where they could go.

This is not Duggan’s opinion. It is a fact of American history. It happened in Detroit, and it happened in Rochester. You can see the effects today, in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, where most residents are people of color. And you can see it in suburbs that are almost exclusively white.

And, as Duggan noted, the problems continue today, as more people find that cities are attractive places to live and do business. If government leaders view development only in terms of economic gain – if planning and zoning don’t have a moral component – the poor, often people of color, won’t benefit from the growth. They’ll suffer from it.

Detroit’s in growth mode. Rochester isn’t, but downtown and some neighborhoods are very much in demand right now. So Duggan’s little lecture has lessons for us as well.

As it experiences its first growth in decades, Duggan said, Detroit has an opportunity to shape itself for the future. But that growth needs to be planned, he said. And managed. With a clear vision of what Detroit's people want their city to be.

Duggan and his administration have come up with what he said is a “guiding principle”: “one city for all of us.” That principle, he said, “defines our planning strategy.”

Among the decisions Duggan and his administration have made: The city won’t support development if it will “move out Detroiters so other people can move in.” There’ll be no tax breaks for development that displaces residents or reduces the number of affordable housing units. And if a housing development needs city financing, 20 percent of the units have to be affordable housing.

The city has established a housing trust fund to help preserve affordable housing in buildings whose low-income housing tax credits are expiring.

The city is taking over abandoned houses and selling them on the internet.

The Duggan administration is encouraging mixed-income housing all across the city, to fight economic segregation. “It would be so easy in this city to have one area of the city be all wealthy people and another area be all poor people,” Duggan said. To avoid that, “you have to work really hard at it every single day.”

And Duggan's administration is focused on building a city that feels like a city: one with “neighborhoods of density.”

“If you want to live in a neighborhood with 2500-square-foot Colonials on a cul de sac,” Duggan said, “you’ve got lots of good choices in the suburbs.” City living, he said, offers a different lifestyle, one where goods and services are within walking distance.

Duggan did a fair amount of bragging. He talked about home prices in some neighborhoods growing by more than 50 percent in three years. He talked about businesses he says are making money investing in Detroit. He talked about the growth in small businesses operated by African Americans.

Part of a mayor's job is to be a cheerleader, obviously. But something really is going on in Detroit. Earlier this week, for instance, Crain's Detroit reported that a major Toronto developer is looking at Detroit property to invest in.

So it's significant that Detroit's mayor is talking about affordable housing throughout the city, about equity and inclusiveness. It's also significant that Duggan's talk last year was at an event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. He got a standing ovation, and hugely positive press following it.

That's important, because while their words and their initiatives matter, mayors can't work magic. They need partners. Rochester's mayor has been helping lead efforts on everything from poverty reduction to affordable housing. I wonder, though, what kind of reception she'd get if she gave Duggan's speech at our Chamber of Commerce. And at a meeting of Monroe County legislators and suburban town supervisors.

The government decisions made in the 1940s and 1950s are still creating problems today, as Detroit's Mike Duggan said. And cities like Detroit and Rochester can't undo them on their own.

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