We all know the biggest Detroit story of 2022: the giant slide. The Belle Isle nostalgia attraction briefly reopened this summer, only to terrorize kids with high speeds, bumps and bruises — and spawn some of our best memes of the year.
But it was a significant year in the city for many (real) reasons. Detroit looked to recover from the worst of the pandemic and implement lessons learned from its emergency response. We saw new policies introduced already making a material difference in Detroiters’ lives and welcomed scrutiny of some of the systems that make it difficult to get by. We saw beloved restaurants close, new businesses open and many other changes to the city’s landscape from greenways to skyscrapers. And we saw Detroiters show up in droves to advocate for their interests throughout the year at City Council, community meetings and protests.
We’ve gathered some of the highlights (and lowlights) from Detroit’s 2022 happenings, with updates on our reporting. Here’s to a thriving 2023 — hopefully, it’ll be a less bumpy ride.
Our favorite 2022 novelty song: Gmac Cash’s “Giant Slide,” of course.
Pandemic recovery funds inspire debate over how to build a better city
There might be no acronym we’ve heard or used more this year than ARPA, aka the American Rescue Plan Act, aka the federal pandemic recovery package that directed $826 million to Detroit.
The monumental one-time pot of funding has had residents questioning whether and how the spending will improve the lives of and services for all Detroiters.
The funds must be spent by the end of 2026; by October, the city had spent about 5% of the funding, though officials said programming was on track.
Many programs we’ve covered at Outlier over the year and below — right to counsel, water bill assistance, home repairs — are being paid for, at least initially, with ARPA dollars. The city divides its spending priorities into large buckets including blight remediation; jobs and education; city services and infrastructure; small business support; parks and recreation; home repairs; affordable housing; and public safety.
On the flip side, a proposal to use $7 million in ARPA funds to expand the Detroit Police Department’s use of its ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology sparked passionate opposition. Pushback against the contract and surveillance efforts at large dominated multiple City Council meetings, leading to Council delaying a vote and ultimately deciding to instead use general funding for the ShotSpotter expansion, which was approved in October.
Our favorite 2022 app to complain about: It’s gotta be the city’s revamped parking app.
Residents show up in force at government meetings
Some residents who wanted to make their voices heard at City Council found themselves crowded out of public meetings, coming to a head during ShotSpotter discussions.
Since January, City Council has been meeting in the Committee of the Whole Room. It was limiting attendance numbers until October, following COVID-19 distancing guidelines, when members of the public demanded to be let into the room.
The body used to meet in the much larger Erma L. Henderson Auditorium across the hall. Only about 15 seats were available in the Committee of the Whole Room, but after our coverage of the long lines and complaints of disabled and elderly attendees who didn’t have a place to sit, Council brought in more chairs to allow for a bigger crowd.
Council President Mary Sheffield told Outlier Media in October that they plan to move back to the auditorium as soon as possible, but couldn’t yet due to “technical difficulties” and video equipment delays to be able to broadcast their sessions. Council has been making sure the auditorium is empty during their sessions in order to have extra space for people to be seated, and we’ll be following up on meeting access when City Council returns from break.
Meanwhile, online meeting access continued for many city government meetings all year, a transparency win for residents who want to stay informed or weigh in but may be unable to attend a meeting in person. Still, as the Detroit Documenters attended more than 270 meetings virtually in 2022, they often reported technical and sound quality issues.
Our favorite 2022 map to explore: The city’s new, participatory mural map.
Utility company practices come under fire
Throughout the year, Michigan’s largest private utility, DTE Energy, was pushing for a rate hike, asking the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) for permission to charge customers a collective $388 million more a year. At the same time, it was shutting off Michigan customers’ electricity for nonpayment at its fastest clip in at least nine years and garnishing the wages of thousands of Detroiters who couldn’t pay and ended up in debt.
In March, a first-of-its-kind analysis by Outlier and ProPublica showed that DTE’s shut-off rate during the COVID-19 pandemic outpaced all other Michigan utilities owned by private investors and regulated by the state. We followed up in November to show DTE disconnected accounts more than 176,000 times from January through September, more than in the first nine months of any year since at least 2013.
And last month, the MPSC voted to reject more than 90% of the rate increase requested by DTE. Most residential bills will increase by less than 1% as a result. The total represents the smallest increase approved for DTE in an electric rate case in at least a decade. The commission also directed DTE to provide it with more details about the impact of its low-income assistance programs.
More help for homeowners but not enough
Initiatives to support homeowners in Detroit made strides but still left gaps this year. The ARPA-funded Renew Detroit program, which will conduct home repairs for 2,000 older and disabled residents, began roof repairs for the first 200 homeowners and opened applications for its second phase.
But there are plenty more Detroit homes in inadequate conditions — an estimated 38,000, according to a 2021 University of Michigan report. And those needs are urgent. When the Gilbert Family Foundation launched a separate, $20 million Detroit Home Repair Fund in May, the hotline received nearly 200,000 calls in its first week (though many were repeat calls). By June the program had almost 5,700 people lined up for aid.
We also reported on the city’s efforts to mitigate child lead poisoning, a significant problem in Detroit due to peeling paint in old homes. The city’s HUD-funded lead mitigation program has been slow to roll out and likely won’t meet its 2025 deadline to spend its $9.7 million. And the city isn’t doing much to address the problem before kids move into old housing stock with lead paint — the Detroit Land Bank Authority sells homes in its inventory without conducting inspections that would reveal lead contamination.
Detroit also endorsed a new affordable water and sewer line protection program to protect homeowners in the case of water and sewer line damage, but it had reports of slow and poor customer service. We found out the program only had one overwhelmed local contractor that was in charge of servicing hundreds of claims.
After our article published in August, the program provider, American Water Resources (AWR), signed on three more contractors in September to work with customers in Detroit. A representative from AWR told us this month that they’re looking to hire more Detroit-based contractors and local residents to work as call center agents.
As for taxes, Detroiters are closing out the year without any systemic reform in the property tax assessment process. The Coalition for Property Tax Justice and City Council got close this year to making the assessment process more transparent and giving the council more oversight. Reforms would also have made it easier for Detroiters to appeal their assessments. The city’s lawyers pushed back on the proposal and called it unlawful, delaying any movement until next year.
Our favorite 2022 luxury item we’ll never purchase: That $99 milkshake.
A plan to end water shut-offs as moratorium expires
One of the most notable assistance programs introduced during the pandemic was the moratorium on water shut-offs. Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) shut-offs left tens of thousands Detroit households without water over the years — in 2014 alone, the city shut off water for 33,000 households, prompting United Nations representatives to call out the city for violating residents’ human rights. DWSD promised no one would lose service due to nonpayment during the almost two-year moratorium.
Despite Mayor Mike Duggan initially saying he wanted water shut-offs to end permanently, the city set a Dec. 31, 2022 expiration date on the program. Earlier in the year, DWSD did roll out a new assistance program similar (if less extensive) to what advocates have asked for repeatedly to secure a basic need for Detroiters unable to afford an essential service. The Lifeline Plan, funded with ARPA dollars, sets fixed water bill rates based on income for eligible enrollees (making low or modest incomes).
In the program’s first four months, 8,525 households have enrolled in Lifeline, a DWSD spokesman said this week, and another 5,211 households are in the process. The overwhelming majority of participants are on the lowest income tier, meaning they are billed $18 a month. But the program is only funded for 18 months, making its longevity unclear.
Our favorite 2022 creature: The giant duck!
Renters navigate obstacles, score a delayed victory
Throughout the year, we heard from Detroiters who faced eviction, homelessness, rentals in bad conditions and difficulties finding affordable housing.
Evictions climbed this year after moratoriums and COVID-19 rent assistance expired. The bad news is one in five Detroit tenants faced eviction in 2022, and evictions are on track to reach pre-pandemic levels. That made the passage of the Right to Counsel ordinance this past May — brewing for several years — even more timely. Right to counsel policies, which exist in other cities, provide representation for tenants in eviction cases, who overwhelmingly don’t have attorneys while landlords do.
Detroit’s program passed City Council with $10 million in funding lined up. Advocates say the annual cost will be closer to $17 million. It hit a snag before any attorneys took clients, however. The city missed the October deadline spelled out in the ordinance to establish the Office of Eviction Defense, which will coordinate the right to counsel program. It has since named a vendor, executive director and project manager. In 2023, we’ll see whether right to counsel successfully curbs evictions that are currently continuing to make their way through the courts as the program gets off the ground.
We also recently checked back in with one tenant, Jai Kiser, who was the victim of a rental scam and then arrested for trespassing by an obscure DPD team that works with landlords. That team is now being investigated, Kiser’s charges were dropped and she secured a Section 8 affordable housing voucher, but she said she no longer feels safe living in the city.
Renters’ instability and lack of options when dealing with negligent landlords came up again and again. In June, a senior alerted us to an urgent situation at their home in the Jeffersonian high-rise apartment building. Amid an excessive heat warning, the building’s air conditioning system was down with no clear answers on when residents could expect it to be turned back on.
Building management refused to answer questions from Outlier and gave tenants a late notice to find alternative housing, saying $400 rent concessions would be applied to the next month’s rent.
The reader who brought this to our attention (and asked to remain anonymous) lived in the Jeffersonian for more than a decade. After our earlier reporting, she experienced multiple power outages that worried her because she lived on the 27th floor and depends on a walker, so an elevator outage could become a matter of life and death. She decided to move out and was able to find a first-floor unit in a different building in the same neighborhood. Her new place is infinitely better, she said.
Our favorite 2022 tenuous TV crossover: This roundup of Gilded Age mansions still standing in Detroit, inspired by a binge of HBO’s “The Gilded Age.”
Whatever happened to recreational cannabis?
Michigan voters approved legalizing recreational cannabis in 2018 — and Detroiters voted to decriminalize possession way back in 2012 — but you still can’t buy it in the city. The long delay has frustrated Detroit’s medical marijuana dispensary owners and would-be cannabis entrepreneurs who see money funneling to the suburbs as they struggle to stay afloat.
In the last four years, recreational marijuana business licensing hit roadblock after roadblock: lawsuits, ordinance revisions and debates on amendments. Applications finally opened on Sept. 1 for the first phase of limited licenses and the city plans to start issuing them this month after clearing one of those legal obstacles.
The city is offering a select amount of licenses in each phase to go toward “social equity” applicants, or residents who have been disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition. We reported that in the current licensing process, benefits no longer exist in the social equity application for Detroit residents, and that anyone from anywhere in the country belonging to a “disproportionately impacted community” can be awarded a business license in Detroit.
We plan to check if the social equity application did end up benefiting Detroit residents at all, as it was intended to, by seeing how many Detroit residents were awarded a business license through the social equity application process.
Meanwhile, the statewide social equity program, which is meant to lower barriers for people disproportionately impacted by criminalization, is also failing to live up to its goals. The state has only issued 155 social equity licenses out of the total 3,100, Crain’s Detroit Business reported this month.
Big developments make uneven headway
There are a lot of familiar names on the “major developments” list — some with new updates and some offering more of the same.
Dan Gilbert’s development arm, Bedrock LLC, was awarded an additional $60 million in tax abatements for the in-progress Hudson’s site development. We heard from residents who were frustrated about that price tag and the process — City Council approved the deal on a sudden walk-on agenda item after months of debate and delays. Bedrock ultimately committed to additional community benefits as part of the agreement.
Various proposed industrial projects faced resident pushback this year and others are in full swing. NorthPoint Development recently began demolition of the former American Motors Corp. complex on the west side after buying the property from the city earlier in the year and receiving $33 million in tax incentives in June. General Motors will likely lease the redeveloped site to support electric vehicle manufacturing.
And it’s back to the drawing board for the District Detroit, the unrealized large-scale development around the Little Caesars Arena originally announced in 2014. The Ilitches’ OIympia Development and Stephen Ross’ Related Cos. revealed plans in November for a $1.5 billion development focused around the new Detroit Center for Innovation. The community benefits process, a city requirement for large projects, is now underway, and construction could start next year.
City demolition at the neglected Packard Plant site also began this fall amid a messy legal battle with owner Fernando Palazuelo, who lost a chunk of the properties to tax foreclosure. And we’ve got our eyes on the Wayne County jail complex north of downtown, which Bedrock is developing as part of a land swap agreement for the “fail jail” site on Gratiot downtown (with its own uncertain future). The jail project is more than $64 million over budget and is expected to open next year.
Our favorite 2022 artist finds: Too many to list!
Cultivation of prized public space continues
With its 20th anniversary coming up next year, the Riverfront Conservancy spent 2022 working on projects to further connect the riverfront. The organization broke ground on the Southwest Greenway and the Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park this year and continued work on the Uniroyal Promenade site, which is slated to open next summer, a spokesman told Outlier this week. Speaking of greenways, the city opened the first stretch of the 27.5-mile Joe Louis Greenway last month, while starting construction on its second segment.
The riverfront is also getting attention from private developers like Bedrock, which has expanded its portfolio of buildings near the east riverfront and recently started bringing streetscape improvements and art initiatives to the site. In the near future, Hart Plaza may get a facelift as well. Duggan has proposed allocating $18 million to renovate the downtown festival space.
Those big projects are exciting, but sometimes it’s the little things that make public space so special. In May, we took a look at the then-closed “Ze Mound” by William G. Milliken State Park, beloved by riverfront aficionados for its views. In fall, the mound reopened for visitors after an $850,000 facelift, with a winding path to the top, stairs, landscaping and tower viewers.
Our favorite 2022 construction project: The Second Avenue Bridge we watched get rolled into place over I-94 in an impressive feat of engineering.
Reforms for Detroit’s broken towing system
In August, Outlier explored recourse options for victims of Detroit’s informal — and at times criminal — world of towing through the story of Andre Foster. Foster’s car was towed while it was not in his possession, and by the time he received notice of the tow, the balance was well beyond his means.
It’s been more than a year since the tow, and Foster has yet to reclaim his car or secure the funds for a new vehicle. When we first spoke with him in August, he was borrowing his aunt’s car. He’s now depending on his grandmother’s vehicle because the former car is out of service.
Since our reporting, Duggan announced changes to the city’s towing procedures in an effort to limit opportunities for corruption, including eliminating recovery fees for victims of auto theft. Vehicles that were reported stolen must now be taken to the police storage lot, and owners who recover their stolen vehicles will have impound and storage fees waived.
Foster is hopeful he’ll have a new car by the end of winter.
LGBTQ+ Detroiters push for recognition
Back in June, the Detroit school board failed to recognize Pride Month because there weren’t enough votes in favor of the resolution. District-wide Pride events still happened, but the symbolic recognition of the month was shot down due to one opposing vote of four total board members who were at the meeting. The resolution needed at least four “yes” votes, which is the majority of the board. Three board members were absent for the vote.
A month after our coverage, DPSCD officially recognized Pride Month at their July board meeting. Board members unanimously approved a resolution that included a list of other observances to recognize throughout the year, like Juneteenth, Arab American Heritage Month and Hotter than July.
The city marked the 50th Motor City Pride in June, with grand marshal Jaye Spiro, 74, at the helm. She reflected on attending the first Pride celebration in 1972, being out in a “hostile world,” what’s changed since then and the continued struggles for young people to come out and figure out who they are. We also talked to some members of younger generations cultivating queer community spaces in Detroit and the organizer of a grassroots organization in Dearborn, For the Binat, which offers support for individuals affected by homophobic rhetoric targeting LGBTQ+ community members.
Our favorite 2022 health code violation: Lafayette Coney’s rat droppings, for sure… glad they passed their following health inspections!
Transportation access holds Detroiters back
The year’s biggest transportation update might be the first bit of momentum for regional transit in a while. In November, Oakland County voters approved a transit millage, which means individual cities can no longer opt out of providing public transportation and there will be fewer gaps in the region’s transit coverage. Public transit access could make more progress next year with a little love from the Democratic majority in the Legislature, but lawmakers aren’t making any promises yet.
The rest of the transportation story is less optimistic: Buses that often arrive late or never show up. A narrowly avoided 70% cut to services for paratransit riders after years of issues. Massive insurance costs that put car ownership out of reach for thousands of residents and road conditions that make costly repair bills routine. Deadly streets and a disproportionate number of car crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists. Pedestrian infrastructure that’s neglected enough to literally drop a man onto the Lodge Freeway from a collapsing bridge in May. (He was injured but survived.)
One in five Detroit households don’t have a car, and the consequences of not having adequate transportation upends education, employment and much more. In 2022, we started talking to Detroiters about their transportation needs — we hope you’ll share yours with us and stay tuned for more reporting in 2023, when we’ll keep our eye on how Detroit is driving forward.
Aaron Mondry and Sarah Alvarez contributed reporting.