Can These Neighborhoods Be Saved? More Thoughts from Detroit by Alan Mallach, Community Progress Senior Fellow

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Originally posted by Alan Mallach in National Housing Institute’s Rooflines Blog, September  23, 2012

Community Progress Senior Fellow, Alan Mallach, tackles the tough questions surrounding neighborhood decline and revitalization in Detroit and other legacy cities in his latest contribution to Rooflines, the Shelterforce/National Housing Institute blog. He shares his experiences speaking with Detroit residents and community-based organizations, and discusses the challenges cities like Detroit face in convincing prospective homebuyers to invest in their neighborhoods.

In my last post, I described the picture in what I call Detroit’s ‘middle-ground’ neighborhoods. In recent decades, those neighborhoods, mainly single family homes, have housed the city’s solid working class and middle class families, and are now widely in demographic and market free fall. That’s the reality, painful as it may be.

So, we need to ask two questions: Why is it happening? And is there anything that can be done about it?

The “why” is not that complicated. People look for fairly basic things in their communities. A house that meets their needs, and which maintains or increases its value over time. A healthy neighborhood where people maintain their homes, where more families are homeowners than not, and where their person and property are reasonably safe. A quality of life, measured in terms of attractive surroundings, decent schools and public services. Good public transit, a nice shopping district close by, and the like may not be critical, but are good extras.

When a house and a neighborhood no longer live up to those basic standards, it is a reasonable thing for people who can afford to do so to vote with their feet. No one can reasonably ask a family to continue to live without security, safety and a decent quality of life out of abstract loyalty to a city, or on behalf of some ideological principle.

If people voting with their feet is the principal reason for neighborhood decline, at least two other factors are at work as well in Detroit. First are the factors discouraging home buying. It is hard to sell people on buying a home in a market where prices seem to be on an inexorable downward spiral. It is even harder, when because of current mortgage practices and rules, the people who want to buy homes in Detroit—and they exist—find it all but impossible to get a mortgage to pay for it.

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