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Last week, WDET convened a panel discussion about the narrative that frames Detroit as “two cities.” There were comments about the contrast between the development in downtown relative to the many neighborhoods of Detroit. I work at United Community Housing Coalition, a nonprofit that provides housing assistance to low-income Detroiters, and a place where the realities of Detroit converge. Every year, our office (now across the park from Little Caesars Arena) is visited by thousands of Detroiters living in foreclosed homes and facing eviction.
Every other Thursday, UCHC runs a housing placement clinic for people who are immediately at risk of homelessness. We refer call-ins and the people we meet at the 36th District Court (which processes approximately 32,000 eviction cases each year). People line up before sunrise for a chance to get assistance with first month’s rent, or a security deposit or a home to move into. Our rooms fill up with people of all ages, using strollers and walkers. This program has somewhat of a nebulous status because the U.S. Department of Housing and Development funding that makes this program possible was recently cut in its entirety, but that’s another story.
Every other Thursday, something else happens at our office. Cops show up to boot and tow cars that are legally parked in front of the building. During the hours when people are in line to find secure housing, their means of transportation is silently whisked away.
Can you imagine imminently facing homelessness, going to the one resource you know might help you, and then losing your car in the process? It’s inconceivable.
UCHC’s office is one of the few locations downtown where people can park for free, where they don’t risk a $45 fee if they are hesitant to enter a license plate number in the ticketing system or can’t afford the few dollars to park.
This is one small example of a common trend in which the excesses of the interior are funded by drawing blood from the stone of the exterior. The “fee-based” economy is common in cities with a high population of low-income residents, and Detroit is heavily afflicted with this mode of operating. Millions of taxpayer dollars are invested in “brownfield” skyscrapers downtown, while schools go underfunded. The land for Little Caesars Arena was given away for a dollar to those who needed it least while thousands of homes are foreclosed each year and many thousands remain indefinitely in the hands of the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Water shutoffs continue amidst state policies that freely give away Great Lakes water to corporations.
This is not a tale of two cities: this is one city building castles by digging into the poorest people’s sandboxes.
Michele Oberholtzer lives in Hamtramck and works in Detroit. She is the director of the Tax Foreclosure Prevention Project for United Community Housing Coalition and is running to represent the 4th District in the Michigan House.