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Immigration in the Motor City: Explore at the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference

April 10, 2015

Southwest Detroit (Credit :Ian Freimuth, 2009)

Southwest Detroit (Credit :Ian Freimuth, 2009)

Southwest Detroit (Credit: Ian Freimuth, 2009)

Post-industrial cities throughout the Rust Belt have experienced significant population loss over the last fifty years, leading to unprecedented numbers of vacant and abandoned properties. Immigrants can breathe new life into neighborhoods that have seen disinvestment and abandonment.

At the 2015 Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, participants will have the opportunity to explore immigration and community development in Detroit through a special mobile workshop, “New Neighbors, Stronger Neighborhoods: Serving Immigrant Families and Revitalizing Detroit.” Participants will see firsthand how immigrants have revitalized neighborhoods in Banglatown and SW Detroit. You can register for RVP here, and learn more about all our great mobile workshops here. Register soon, though, because there are limited spots available, and they fill up fast!

To learn more about this workshop we were able to talk with Steve Tobocman, Director of Global Detroit, who will be leading the workshop. Here’s what he had to say:

What role can—and do—immigrants play in the economic recovery of Detroit?

Immigrants can and do play a significant role in Detroit’s economic recovery–both in a regional context and within the city.  On a regional level, immigrants are extremely well-educated (close to 40% college-educated compared to 23% of U.S.-born Michiganders), educated in the critical STEM fields (accounting for 40-50% of the masters and doctorates awarded in engineering, computer science, physical sciences, and life sciences), and critical to the growth of New Economy firms (founding 32.8% of the high-tech firms launched between 1995-2005 in Michigan).

From a national or Rust Belt perspective, immigrants are critical to the health and revitalization of urban communities.  They are critical source of population stabilization and growth.  Immigrants also are critical to the health of Main Street business corridors.  A recent study from the Fiscal Policy Institute notes that immigrants account for 28% of all the Main Street business owners in the nation, including 58% of all the dry cleaners, 53% of grocery stores, 38% of restaurants, 32% of all clothing stores, 28% of department and discount stores, and 25% of electronics, radio, television, and computer stores.

Several Detroit and inner-ring suburban communities have experienced this positive impact, including Mexicantown, the Bangladeshi community on the Hamtramck-Detroit border, east Dearborn, and south Oakland and Macomb counties.  Despite these successes, however, much more needs to be done.

Detroit still is the 17th largest population of any city in America with some 700,000 residents.  Yet, Detroit possesses the 138th largest foreign born population.  No other top 25 city has a foreign born population outside the top 100 and only one other is even outside the top 50.  If the city merely held its own and were also the 17th largest foreign born population (a fact not completely far-fetched given the fact that Metro Detroit has 400,000 foreign-born and is close to the national average), Detroit would have 108,000 more residents.

Simply put, developing a more welcoming city to immigrants is a tremendous tried and true economic development and urban revitalization strategy.

Mexicantown Mercado (Credit:, 2006)

Mexicantown Mercado (Credit:, 2006)

What is one program the City of Detroit is using to attract and support immigrants, particularly connected to housing or small business, that you think shows real promise or is already having an impact?

The city has declared itself as a Welcoming City, joining Welcoming America’s Welcoming Cities and Counties program.  While this is a symbolic action, the declaration encompasses a variety of actions that City of Detroit is taking.  First, the Detroit City Council convened the first-ever Immigration Task Force with broad membership from Detroit’s immigrant and ethnic communities.  The Task Force has identified goals and has been a means for organizing around various actions to improve the quality of life for immigrants in Detroit.  Second, the City of Detroit is investing in translating many of its materials into multiple languages (usually Spanish, Arabic, and Bangladeshi), ensuring that Land Bank auctions, 0% home improvement loans, and small business grants are being marketed to immigrant residents and business owners.  Finally, the City is in the process of hiring a Director of Immigrant and International Affairs to serve as a liaison to various immigrant and ethnic communities.

The key to the future is not so much inventing new programs or incentives for immigrants, but in connecting immigrants to the existing opportunities and insuring that those opportunities connect to immigrants.

What is special about the neighborhoods that the “New Neighbors, Stronger Neighborhoods” mobile workshop will visit?

The “New Neighbors, Stronger Neighborhoods” mobile workshop is special because participants will see a side of Detroit that largely has not been discovered by the intense microscope that national media has provided to the Detroit bankruptcy and recovery story.  Participants will see neighborhoods where Arab, Bangladeshi, and Latino residents have acquired and rehabbed vacant homes and storefronts, as well as created community gardens.

What is one takeaway that participants in the mobile workshop will come away with?

Participants will come away with a strong sense of the opportunity that immigrants and refugees can make for urban neighborhoods and vacant property.

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