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Reinventing the Motor City: Observations and Insights from Detroit

Photo by Paul Warner/Getty Images

As Detroit writes the next chapter of its recovery, the city continues to evolve and adapt. Public and philanthropic investments are rebuilding critical infrastructure, restoring market confidence, and attracting entrepreneurs and private capital back to the city. While downtown and midtown thrive, many of Detroit’s neighborhoods still confront a weak housing market, high unemployment, poverty, poor public transit, and blocks of vacant and abandoned properties.

Although the scope of these challenges is daunting, the city has proven its resilience. Now, leaders and residents must come together to ensure that everyone has the opportunity for success. To support this effort, Urban Institute researchers are working with local officials, nonprofits, and institutions to explore how Detroit can harness its current initiatives, ideas, and investments to become a more healthy and inclusive city.

Urban’s role

Through our research and engagement, we support and accelerate Detroit’s recovery, inform innovative revitalization strategies, and help state, local, and regional leaders transform evidence into concrete action.

Our Detroit work builds on a foundation of Urban Institute research about southeastern Michigan, the state of Michigan, and the Great Lakes region, allowing us to examine how Detroit fits into broader economic and demographic trends. By collaborating with local stakeholders, we get a better understanding of the local context and community dynamics so our results and recommendations are responsive to local needs and priorities.

Additionally, our work is a platform to connect public officials, national and local nonprofits, businesses, and philanthropic and civic organizations within Detroit and beyond. We routinely advise policymakers and philanthropists interested in applying lessons from Detroit’s recovery to other industrial cities, particularly regarding equitable development, resilience, and inclusive revitalization.

Our portfolio of recent and ongoing work in Detroit and southeast Michigan includes the following.

Policy and market analysis

  • Southeast Michigan Housing Futures: A Converging Story for the Detroit Metropolitan Area. The Detroit region is expected to gain roughly 380,000 households between 2010 and 2040. With this growth, the region will face three major challenges: a decline in African American homeownership, growing demand for rental housing, and the need for new senior housing models.

  • The Financial Health of Detroit Residents. We use credit bureau data to examine Detroit residents’ financial health through credit scores, debt profiles, and delinquencies, and we recommend city-level programs and policies to improve these measures.

  • Commercial Capital Flows. This project identifies trends in commercial investment in Detroit over the past several years, the neighborhoods and districts where investments are made, and the lenders and institutions involved in the city’s resurgence.

Engagement and community-based research

  • Based on a recommendation from our Detroit Housing Market report, the Urban Institute, in collaboration with Detroit Future City, is managing a six-month planning process with local leaders to design the Detroit Neighborhood Housing Compact. The housing compact will bring together local nonprofit, private-sector, and public-sector leaders to focus on major housing issues, set goals, and take actions that expand current housing programs and strengthen the city’s housing ecosystem.

  • Working with the National Resource Network, we identified the best ways to align cities and local anchor institutions around shared interests and large-scale economic and community development.