Whites are moving back to the American city that came to epitomize white flight, even as blacks continue to leave for the suburbs and the city’s overall population shrinks.
Detroit is the latest major city to see an influx of whites who may not find the suburbs as alluring as their parents and grandparents did in the last half of the 20th century. Unlike New York, San Francisco and many other cities that have seen the demographic shift, though, it’s cheap housing and incentive programs that are partly fueling the regrowth of the Motor City’s white population.
“For any individual who wants to build a company or contribute to the city, Detroit is the perfect place to be,” said Bruce Katz, co-director of the Global Cities Initiative at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “You can come to Detroit and you can really make a difference.”
No other city may be as synonymous as Detroit with white flight, the exodus of whites from large cities that began in the middle of the last century. Detroit went from a thriving hub of industry with a population of 1.8 million in 1950 to a city of roughly 680,000 in 2014 that recently went through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. In those decades, the city’s population has gone from nearly 84 percent white to a little less than 13 percent white.
In the three years after the 2010 U.S. Census, though, Detroit’s white population grew from just under 76,000 residents to more than 88,000, according to a census estimate. The cheap cost of living, opportunities for young entrepreneurs and push by city-based companies to persuade workers to live nearby have made a big difference, experts say.
Simple math convinced music producer Mike Seger to move from adjacent Oakland County into a rented two-story house on Detroit’s east side that also houses his Get Fresh Studio. Seger, 27, pays $750 per month in rent, and said he wouldn’t have been able to find anything comparable in the suburbs for that price. The average monthly rental rate of a three-bedroom single-family home in Detroit is about $800, as opposed to $1,100 to $1,400 in the suburbs, according to RentRange.com, which collects rental market information.
“A young person can move here with $10,000 and start up a small flex space for artists or artists’ studios,” Seger said. “It’s the uprising of the youth being able to have the opportunities to make a future for themselves.”
Eugene Gualtieri, a 41-year-old lab technician at the Detroit Medical Center, took advantage of an incentive program. Live Midtown, offered by his employer and several others in the Midtown neighborhood, allowed him to take out a $20,000 home loan that he won’t have to repay if he stays in his condo for five years. The program is aimed at getting workers to live closer to their jobs, which can benefit employers and employees.
“The condo is eight minutes from work … super close, nice neighborhood and really reasonably priced,” Gualtieri said. “Like any part of any city, I’m sure there are good parts and bad parts. You just make sure you don’t end up in the areas you are not supposed to be in.”
Live Downtown is a similar incentive program offered by employers located in downtown Detroit, which is home to General Motors, Quicken Loans and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Three professional sports teams and stadiums, three casinos, restaurants and bars are entertainment anchors.
Blacks appear to be weary of waiting for Detroit to turn things around and have been migrating to nearby suburbs in search of comfort, better schools and lower crime.
The city’s black population was nearly 776,000 in 1990. By 2013 it had dipped to an estimated 554,000.
Elizabeth St. Clair, 27, and her family may count themselves among black former Detroiters.
St. Clair and her boyfriend are searching for rental homes in Detroit and several inner-ring suburbs. She has two school-aged children.
She acknowledges things are getting better — pointing out Detroit’s current campaign to tear down vacant houses and eradicate blight. But the high cost of car insurance, underperforming schools and the condition of many neighborhoods are obstacles.
“As I see a resurgence of Detroit, I really want to stay here,” St. Clair said. “I feel there are two Detroits. There’s a Detroit where you are able to go downtown and enjoy, and then in our neighborhoods there’s not much change.”
Susan Mosey, who heads the nonprofit planning and development group Midtown Detroit Inc., said about 1,150 people have participated in the Live Midtown program, 38 percent of whom are white and 38 percent of whom are black. She said it’s great to see whites moving back to Detroit, but the city needs to attract more people and stop others from leaving.
“The reality is this town is not diverse enough,” Mosey said of Detroit as a whole. “We need new immigrants and more whites to move in. We lost so many of the middle-class African-Americans during the recession. We need good numbers of all people to come back.”
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