What Happened to My Neighborhood? Living with Blight
A house at 3513 Bewick was purchased by John Hantz in 2019 as one of 80 homes he got as part of a deal to free up land needed for the Stellantis plant expansion. (Photo by Quinn Banks) courtesy Bridge Magazine
Suburbanization is a population shift from central urban areas into suburbs, resulting in the formation of urban sprawl. Detroit neighborhoods were thriving in the 1960s and 1970s. Detroit tripled in population during the 1920s and kept growing until after World War II. Racism and suburbanization caused people to move away from Detroit. A major city, like Detroit, needs a strong tax base to pay for municipal services, major hospitals to sustain health, a diverse cultural community, a sufficient form of mass transit, and schools to educate children. The neighborhood I grew up in has many vacant fields where houses stood, buildings are boarded up to prevent looting and fire, and graffiti and gang signs litter the landscape. People used to take pride in their community and watch over each other’s houses. The problem is people are separated by race and class. Racism is taught from generation to generation, and this evil migrates from other parts of the country. After the Great Depression Black people were treated like second-class citizens. They were forced to live in crowded neighborhoods, close to the inner city that were poorly maintained, and many residences lacked proper sanitation or sewers. Suburbanization from auto manufacturing and white residents moving out of Detroit caused the city to lose important tax revenue to sustain itself and left behind vacant property. The people left behind in Detroit were renting or purchasing on a Land Contract. Blight is caused by tax foreclosures and bankruptcies. Thirty years ago, in southwest Detroit, people were generation to generation homeowners. Today most homeowners have left the neighborhood, and the houses are rented out. Many of the schools are closed down. Community pride needs a revival if Detroit is to make a comeback.
My research consisted of reading sections of three books that covered racial violence and unfair restrictive covenants that caused African Americans to live in overcrowded areas at or near poverty level. Whenever a minority family tried to better their living situation they were met by threats of violence and unfair legal practices that prevented growth and economic prosperity. I read The Origins Of The Urban Crisis, by Thomas Sugrue, and I discovered that the issues that America is facing now are the same issues people were facing in the 1940s through the 1960s. During the 1940s, people of color were prohibited from moving into white neighborhoods because of racial covenants, laws in city government, threats of violence, and unfair practices called redlining. Today people are protesting and rioting because of police brutality against African Americans. In the book, Defending The Divide, William Winkle focuses on racism and homeowners’ associations that set a precedent for political and economic interests. Detroit’s attitude towards integrated housing was biased and unfair in the 1940s, and today foreclosures are at an all-time high according to Alexa Eisenberg of the United Community Housing Coalition. White residents organized into homeowners’ associations and used legal documents called restrictive covenants, and threats of violence to protect their neighborhoods from a perceived threat of black expansion. Fear was the driving emotion amongst white associations, and that fear caused black people to look like the enemy, so hatred became a consequence. I read two chapters in the book, Colored Property by David Freund. The first chapter discusses two acts of violence that took place forty years apart, but the attitude with white homeowners in the neighborhood is the same. The first chapter also discusses white homeowner associations and restrictive covenants. Chapter Five discusses how the federal government used the mortgage market and zoning practices to benefit whites and exclude blacks, especially the poor.
I interviewed Kelly Vickers via Zoom on September 20, 2020. Mr. Vickers is the Associate Director of Housing and Revitalization for Detroit. Mr. Vickers has an interesting position of coordinating with different programs between city and federal government. His organization receives its funding primarily through HUD. It was interesting hearing Mr. Vickers discuss how the Covid-19 virus impacted his organization, and how they tried to keep the homeless population safe. Mr. Vickers discussed affordable housing, and the city’s plans to build more units in neighborhoods like Corktown, and the city’s plans for a new Amazon facility located at the former State Fairgrounds. His organization offers tax incentives to developers and property owners to keep housing affordable. His organization believes that long term residents should share in the prosperity of the city’s growth, and not be forced to move by higher rents.
I interviewed Alexa Eisenberg via Zoom on October 20, 2020. Miss Eisenberg’s interview was based on her experience with community health and her experience with the United Community Housing Coalition. Based on my interview, Miss. Eisenberg feels strongly against racial injustices and people losing their homes due to foreclosure. The problem is lack of knowledge of the programs available, and a language barrier between minorities. According to Alexa Eisenberg the City of Detroit needs more assistance from the federal government to serve low income families and prevent them from losing their homes. Race is still an issue and people are not getting the help they need. Mayor Duggan has only recently recognized there is a problem and tearing down houses is not always the solution. People need lending resources to rebuild their communities. Demolition is not the best solution.
I interviewed Francis Grunow via Zoom on October 29, 2020. Grunow and I share a love for Detroit’s architecture. Detroit has a unique history dating back to early French settlers. The name “Detroit” comes from the French for “the straits.” Detroit was known for shipbuilding and stove manufacturing before Detroit was known as the Motor City. The history of Detroit can be studied through architecture. Grunow told me that is how he developed a passion for Architecture because of Detroit’s rich history. Gronow said, “architecture is an important portal to the past.”
Grunow is a crusader against corporate enterprises, such as Illitch Holdings, and tries to hold them accountable to their word. In an HBO interview, Grunow explains that Illitch Holdings used Detroit tax dollars to build Little Caesar’s Arena and promised to build affordable housing in the area surrounding Little Caesar’s Arena. Illitch Holdings failed to deliver on their promises. Ilitch Holdings used a great deal of space around Little Caesar’s Arena for parking rather than housing. The Big Three Automakers in Detroit has a great deal of political influence in Detroit. The problem with a lack of mass transit is a requirement of parking lots if travel by automobile is the preferred form of transportation. Grunow explained, “Racism is still a huge issue and African American people are locked out of opportunities for urban development.” People applying for mortgages are disproportionately given to white people over black people. Red lining is an illegal practice, concerning lending, that still happens today. The language is changed to “risk assessment.” Detroit residents pay a higher premium for auto and home insurance. Lenders are skeptical about giving loans to Detroit residents because of fires, theft, and vandalism. Francis Grunow has a substantial amount of pride for the city of Detroit. He understands how blight can affect a neighborhood and is willing to make a difference in the community. Grunow told me he is recently working on a project called the Gratiot Seven Mile Framework Study. This organization uses federal grants to improve communities. Funds are used for blight remediation, recreation centers, and streetscapes. He is also restoring a house and has experienced firsthand the challenges of fixing up a house in Detroit.
The Obstacles that Prevented Home Ownership for Minorities In the book, The Origins Of The Urban Crisis, author Thomas Sugrue shares how restrictive covenants and unfair housing practices created an environment in Detroit and other major cities that crippled the growth and prosperity for Black people. The issues that America is facing now are issues that people were facing in the 1940s through the 1960s. People are still separated and treated unjustly because of race or class. The problem is a lack of change in people’s belief systems. Prejudice is not an inherited trait but is learned from generation to generation. Hate is also taught from parents and grandparents from injustices done to them. There is a misconception among white people in Detroit, between 1940 and 1960, that if a Black family moved into a white neighborhood “they” would take it over and the property values would decline. This belief caused neighborhoods to have Restrictive Covenants to protect the residents from declining property values by spreading fear. During the 1940s people of color were prohibited from moving into white neighborhoods because of racial covenants, laws in city government, threats of violence, and unfair practices called redlining. Sugrue writes, “The family who moves in next door to you or down the block, whether white or colored, is not the advance guard of an invasion. They are just folks following the old American custom of bettering their living conditions by seeking a finer place to live” (Sugrue 181).
After the Great Depression, Black people were treated like second-class citizens. They were forced to live in crowded neighborhoods, close to the inner city that were poorly maintained, and many residences lacked proper sanitation or sewers. Many Black families moved into Detroit for factory jobs. Automobile manufacturers converted factories to build war machines for the Allied forces, which created thousands of jobs. The problem was lack of housing to accommodate all the people migrating to Detroit in the neighborhoods designed for Black families which caused overcrowded living conditions. Black workers in the automotive industry were saving their money during the war, and when the war was over they wanted a better life for their families. The income level was increasing rapidly for Black families because of increased hiring in the automotive plants and more private business ownership. Restrictive Covenants prevented Black families from bettering their living conditions. Real estate brokers played on the fear of the “Black Invasion” by staging a Black child riding a bicycle in an all-white neighborhood or having Black children playing in the streets to cause residents to sell their property cheaper. The new owners would sell the property to a Black family on a land contract, for premium rates, which prevented them from building equity. The NAACP hired lawyers Willis Graves and Francis Dent to challenge racially restrictive covenants. The case of “Sipes vs McGhee” lost in court locally but drew national attention and went to the supreme court in 1948. Thomas Sugrue states, “A team of lawyers, led by the NAACP’s talented Thurgood Marshall, argued against racially restrictive covenants using both sociological evidence about the impact of covenants on black housing opportunities, and constitutional arguments about the illegality of state action that sanctioned racial discrimination” (Sugrue 182). The U.S Supreme court ruled unanimously that restrictive covenants could not be enforced by the state. Division of class was an unintended consequence of Detroit’s opening housing market. Wealthier Blacks that were able to secure high-paying jobs or had family-owned businesses were able to purchase their own homes. Lower income Blacks who were trapped in poor-paying jobs or lost their jobs to deindustrialization remained confined to the decaying inner-city neighborhoods that were overcrowded and needed repair. Families with resources and spending power found the housing shortage increasingly frustrating because their expectations far exceeded their current reality of housing in the city. Imagine being able to afford a nicer house in a nicer neighborhood but moving to that neighborhood placed your family’s lives in danger because of violence. Sugrue references an analogy from sociologists Alfred Mclung Lee and Norman D. Humphrey, “Take an already crowded situation, add half again as many people, give them a great purchasing power, and still attempt to confine them within the old area, and the pressures developed within the increasingly inadequate ‘container’ will burst the walls” (Sugrue 188). The comparison between post war Detroit and now is information travels faster because of television and the internet. The definition of blight is a thing that spoils or damages something. Racism and prejudice qualify that definition. Sometimes it is hard to decipher if the media is telling the truth. The blight in the neighborhoods today is caused from tax foreclosures, and people leaving their homes unoccupied to rot. The unoccupied homes are burnt by arsonists on Devil’s Night leaving neighborhoods looking like a war zone.
Defending The Divide In his article, “Defending The Divide: Homeowners’ Associations and the Struggle for Integration in Detroit, 1940-1965,” William Winkel focuses on racism and homeowners’ associations that set a precedent for political and economic interests. After World War II, overcrowding became a major issue for housing in Detroit. According to Winkle, “As the United States fought World War II, many thousands of people were attracted to the city’s strong manufacturing sector, lured by the high wages that factory jobs offered” (Winkle 4). The city’s attitude concerning housing was biased and unfair. According to Winkle, “The city’s legally imposed restrictions confined blacks to older neighborhoods that were too small to accommodate the new arrivals” (Winkel 4). The two primary neighborhoods reserved for minorities were Black Bottom and Paradise Valley which were concentrated around the downtown area.
Black neighborhoods were forced into overcrowding and the appearance of run-down and dilapidated houses. Like Sugrue, Winkel’s research found that white residents of Detroit perceived blacks with the stereotype that if they migrated into their neighborhood, then their property values would decrease, and they (white residents) could potentially lose their primary investment. According to Winkel, “Their (white residents) entrenched belief was that the inclusion of people of color into their neighborhoods meant the end of stability. This fear, rooted in racism, was the primary driver behind white associations” (Winkel 5). Winkel’s purpose was to address the obstacles that blacks encountered with opportunity and homeownership. He also addresses how politics, mortgage companies, real estate companies, and restrictive covenants impeded black people that had purchasing power to better their living situation.
World War II increased the need for black workers to fill the void left from soldiers fighting in the war. The labor shortage also created a housing shortage. According to Winkel, “ A UAW report titled ‘Negro Employment in Detroit Area’ from 1944 found that ‘a 44% advance in wartime employment brought with it an advance of 103% in the total number of Negroes employed’” (Winkel 6-7). Restrictive covenants were used across the country to enforce racial separation. According to Winkel, “These legal devices, written into deeds to prevent sales of real estate to a particular segment of the population, they were most commonly aimed at the black and Jewish communities” (Winkel 7). The Sojourner Truth housing project was a prime example. According to Winkle, “The perceived threat to property values was touted as the call to arms and spurred a group of white residents to form the Seven-Mile Fenelon Improvement Association. The association launched a fierce campaign to ensure that Sojourner Truth remained white only” (Winkel 8). The association used picketing and politics to achieve their will at the local level and at the federal level. The federal government declared the Sojourner Truth housing project integrated, but local agencies such as The Detroit Housing Commission stood in opposition. According to Winkle, “ The Detroit Housing Commission stated,’ a project should not affect the racial composition of a neighborhood. Nor should it be instrumental in introducing to the neighborhood character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any industry whose presence will clearly be detrimental to real estate values’” (Winkel 9).
The white residents of Seven-Mile Fenelon Improvement Association erected a billboard that stated, “We Want White Tenants in Our White Community.” The association was willing to enforce this message with violence. The areas that were burned during the 1943 riot caused urban areas to become slums, and eventually lead to demolition. According to Winkle, “ Urban-renewal projects after the war (known in the black community as ‘Negro removal’ projects) hastened the redistribution of the black community across the city, even as restrictive covenants remained an impediment to free movement” (Winkle 10). Restrictive covenants were challenged in court across the nation. McGhee versus Sipes was a famous case that took place in Detroit. In 1944 the previous owner ignored the restrictive covenant on the property on Seebaldt Street and sold it to the McGhees, who were black. The McGhees were represented by the NAACP and were ultimately victorious. In 1948, McGhee vs. Sipes along with Shelley vs. Kraemer (a restrictive covenant case originating in St. Louis, Missouri) reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. According to Winkle, “ The NAACP had to launch fresh litigation against the Detroit Housing Commission in order to get Mayor Albert Cobo and the city government to stop formally enforcing segregation” (Winkle 13). The Supreme Court decision caused numerous homeowners’ associations in Detroit to be created and all were united by hate. The Puritan Park Civic Association, the Courville District Improvement Association, and the Seven-Mile Improvement Association were all formed at the end of the 1940s in response to the Supreme Court ruling. The homeowners’ associations became very powerful politically. They could raise funds to support a candidate that was sympathetic to their cause.
Black homeownership was not at a level playing field. According to Winkle, “ In 1940, only 14.4 percent of blacks in Detroit owned their own homes. Denied homeownership and overcharged for rent, black families were deprived of the ability to build home equity and wealth- the very equity and wealth that whites were defending through their associations” (Winkle 15-16). Mortgage companies refused to give mortgages to potential black homeowners because of the influence of homeowners’ associations. Black homeowners were forced to buy homes on Land Contract or pay higher rents to live in middle-class neighborhoods. The threat of violence loomed over black homeowners who were simply trying to better their families living conditions. According to Winkle, “ The real and threatened violence went largely unchecked by the Detroit Police Department. When the races clashed, blacks were arrested, and whites were released” (Winkle 18).
The homeowners’ associations grew in numbers and influence in the 1950s. The support of local business owners included discounted goods for protests and legal services. In exchange, associations would advertise businesses in their newsletters and leaflets. Blockbusting was a process used by realtors to scare homeowners out of a neighborhood to buy the houses at a discount. This process was meant to lower property values by having a black woman walk a baby through a neighborhood or having a group of black children riding bikes down the street of a white neighborhood. Many homeowner associations banded together under umbrella associations. The most prominent was the Federated Civic Associations of Northwest Detroit, which represented fifty groups.
The Detroit Urban League (DUL) would send members to association meetings, events, and fundraisers. The DUL would use the information gathered to thwart the associations’ plans and pressure public leaders to abstain from association meetings and events. According to Winkle, “ The DUL published a report titled, ‘Summary of Known Improvement Association Activities in the Past Two Years: 1955-1957,’ viewed associations as ‘not a manifestation of health, but of illness, and not a return to the democratic spirit but a drastic turn from it’” (Winkle 30-31). One important victory for black homeownership in Detroit was the election of Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. On June 23, 1963, Cavanagh marched side by side with Martin Luther King. Mayor Cavanaugh supported fair housing, but the city council continued to offer resistance. In 1963, two city councilmen crafted a bill which forbade real-estate transactions based on race, religion, or ancestry. The bill was defeated seven to two, Mel Ravitz and William Patrick Jr. were the only supporters. The homeowners’ associations proposed a bill called the Homeowners’ Rights Ordinance. According to Winkle, “ The ordinance granted a homeowner ‘the right to freedom from interference with his property by public authorities attempting to give special privileges to any group.’ The success of the ordinance would represent a significant victory in terms of both enforced segregation and public relations” (Winkle 33). The ordinance passed by a ten percent margin but was ruled unconstitutional by the Wayne County Court.
Racism is an evil that continues today. The past several years has shown examples of violence against race by police officers. Race is still an issue in housing in the city of Detroit. Houses are still sold by land contract because credit is still an issue with minorities. The author William Winkel gave examples how homeowners’ associations established a destructive precedent. According to Winkle, “ The associations divided whites and blacks, divided neighborhoods, and set tone for adversarial city-suburb relations as well” (Winkle 35). Homeowners’ associations still divide people today. While not explicitly by race, they divide by class and social status.
Colored Property The book Colored Property by David Freund discusses how politics influenced division by race. Chapter One demonstrates that white homeowners’ viewpoints towards racial integration had not changed over four decades from the attacks on Garland Street in 1925 to the attack on Kendal Street in 1963. Chapter Five discusses federal policies for homeownership that excluded minorities based on class and political influence. Chapter Five discusses how the federal government used the mortgage market and zoning practices to benefit whites and exclude blacks, especially the poor. According to Freund, “ Chapter Five examines the expansion of the federal role in the private housing market, exploring the policies and political contexts that set the stage for restrictionism politics in white suburbs nationwide between 1940 and 1970” (Freund Ch. 5 pg. 7). The metropolitan Detroit area has a history of keeping poor and middle-class black families in urban areas such as Detroit and preventing the spread of black communities in the suburbs by any means necessary. David Freund discusses how local, state, and federal governments used political influence to protect property values from the perceived threat of black expansion.
David Freund illustrates two acts of violence that took place forty years apart, but the attitude with white homeowners in the neighborhood is the same. The Sweet incident took place on Garland Street in an all-white neighborhood of Detroit. Forty years later, hundreds of white residents descended on the home of Giuseppe Stanzione on Kendal Street in an all-white neighborhood of Dearborn. The similarity between both incidents is a mob was formed, violence erupted, and the police refused to disperse the crowds. The Kendal Street incident was a misunderstanding because the crowd believed a black family was moving in, but the residence was rented to a white man who hired the black men to move his belongings. The Sweet incident involved a racist statement from the Detroit mayor John Smith. According to Freund, Mayor John Smith proclaimed, “any colored person who challenges life and property, simply to gratify his personal pride, is an enemy of his race as well as an incitant of riot and murder” (Freund Ch. 1 pg. 6-7). People were accusing the Sweets as instigating the violence simply by buying a house in a white neighborhood. Ossian Sweet was a doctor, so he had the financial means to better his family. The Waterworks Improvement Association stirred up the residents because it believed the property values would decrease. The Kendal incident involved the mob throwing stones and eggs at Stanzione’s home and vandalizing his car. According to Freund, “ Stanzione received anonymous phone calls threatening to bomb the house. None of the Dearborn city police officers on the scene, including the chief, deputy chief, and safety director, attempted to disperse the crowd, despite the intensifying violence and appeals from a local minister and from Stanzione himself” (Freund Ch.1 pg. 7). Dearborn’s mayor made a statement, “there had been no need for municipal action. Dearborn is one of the safest and cleanest places to live” (Ch.1 pg. 8). Black people were treated as a threat and less than human because of a perception of lower property values. Hubbard’s supporters supported the homeowners’ associations. Freund gives an example of a Dearborn woman’s point of view. She proclaimed, “Their treatment of property and their behavior is like a slow disease killing off a once healthy neighborhood” (Ch.1 pg. 8).
Violence was not the only tactic suburban whites used to exclude minorities from their neighborhoods. White vigilantism was commonplace from 1940 to 1970. It was similar to a form of residential apartheid. White homeowner associations also wrote race-restrictive covenants into their deeds, blocked construction of low-income and rental housing projects, and resorted to intimidation and assault. Suburbanization is a population shift from urban areas to surrounding suburbs resulting with the wealth leaving the city. The population decreasing left less funding to efficiently run a large city. This is exactly what happened to Detroit. The large industrial factories were the first to leave, and many white residents followed, leaving neighborhoods vacant and dilapidated. According to Freund: During the 1920s, blacks and whites in the Detroit region lived in separate neighborhoods, but the vast majority lived in the city itself. Postwar development rapidly drew millions of urban whites and much of the nation’s commercial and industrial base out of major cities and into the suburban fringe, and most suburbanites bought their homes. By the 1960s, most of the nation’s suburbs were almost exclusively white domains and dominated by a homeowning class. Largely excluded from both the exodus and the new, robust market for real estate were racial minorities, most of whom were restricted by overcrowded and often deteriorating center-city neighborhoods. Whites openly embraced a racial science that described blacks and other racial minorities as biologically inferior. Most whites openly endorsed segregation of residential neighborhoods by race and national origin (Freund Ch.1 pg. 9).
Freund argues that politics caused the division between whites and blacks through unfair and unequal policies. What motivated postwar whites to exclude black people from their neighborhoods? The stereotype created during the 1920s where black neighborhoods were overcrowded and run down. Opportunities for black families to better their living conditions were met with opposition from the new neighbors and the ability to achieve a mortgage. Suburbanization fueled white flight from the cities and left the cities underdeveloped. Employment discrimination denied most urban blacks according to Freund, “well-paying jobs that were lifting millions of whites into the middle-class, and the decentralization of manufacturing and retailing drew even more opportunities away from urban centers” (Freund Ch.1 pg. 10-11). Federal programs such as the Public Housing Administration (PHA), the Urban Renewal Administration (URA), and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) accepted racial prejudices and used public policy to view racial integration as a threat. These federal organizations segregated populations by race and denied minorities access to homeownership and better-quality accommodations. White suburban residents viewed the poverty, overcrowding, and deteriorating inner cities and concluded integration would threaten their status, economic position, and ultimately their way of life.. According to Freund, “ they felt threatened by the continual expansion of urban black communities and by black people’s willingness to challenge their second-class status publicly by moving into white neighborhoods, protesting against discrimination, and using public spaces once the exclusive preserve of white people” (Freund Ch.1 pg. 11).
Chapter One also expresses the mindset of white homeowners against black people moving into their neighborhoods. Anti-black sentiment still exists today through politics and police brutality portrayed through the media. Racism is not a natural state of mind, but it is taught from generation to generation and its ideals move across state lines. According to Freund: Whites are often described as carrying preexisting anti-black prejudices with them to their new neighborhoods; racism is transferred from one locale to another, usually from city to suburb or from southern states to the North. Upon arrival, these static racial antipathies complement and infect whites’ responses to other pressing concerns, such as enforcing neighborhood boundaries, maintain control over local job markets, and above all else protecting property values (Freund Ch.1 pg. 12-13).
The concept of racism and fear motivated postwar whites to exclude black people from their neighborhoods. The Great Depression was the means that first separated residential exclusion through poverty and separation of class. After World War II the federal government revolutionized both municipal land-use politics and the market for private homes. According to Freund: By standardizing and popularizing restrictive zoning and by creating a series of oversight, regulatory, and insurance programs for the private mortgage market, the state subsidized suburban growth and made it easier to exclude racial minorities, not just from white neighborhoods but also from a robust new market for private homeownership (Freund Ch.1 pg. 14).
The migration of over one million African Americans to northern industrial cities put enormous pressure on existing black communities, encouraging many families like the Sweets to seek housing in white neighborhoods. White communities responded with property protective associations. These groups organized regularly, passed out leaflets, staged rallies, adopted race-restrictive covenants, and constantly pressured both realtors and homeowners to reject black renters and buyers. Community associations had strong political ties both locally and nationally. They encouraged local municipalities to make strict zoning ordinances. The history of racial politics was slow to change. The Chicago Real Estate Board (CREB) called for the expulsion of “any member who rented or sold property on a white block to black people” (Freund Ch.1 pg. 22). In 1924 the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) added a clause to its Code of Ethics forbidding members from introducing into a neighborhood “members of any race or nationality” whose presence “will clearly be detrimental to property values” (Freund Ch.1 pg. 22). “White Privilege” is a term that describes the supposed democratization of property ownership and black people’s failure to obey the rules of the market. According to Freund, “whites protected general and suburban homeownership, and it warned of the threat posed by racial integration or by federal intervention on behalf of minorities, rather than focusing on black people. Whites focused not on the threat that black people posed to white people, but on the threat that blacks’ presence posed to white property, white neighborhoods, and other supposedly white ‘places’” (Freund Ch.1 pg. 25). After World War II, northern whites had the belief that northern cities and suburbs were not segregated because blacks were inferior, but because they (blacks) were unable or unwilling to play by the rules of the real estate marketplace. White homeowners, during the 1960s, demonstrated their ability to compete freely in an unrestricted market, own, maintain, and protect the values of homes in that market. They (white homeowners) believed that whites had the right to protect their investments, their families, and their communities from any kind of threat even if violence resulted. According to Freund: Whites had the right, they insisted, both to choose their neighbors and to be free from government interventions that might interfere with the market mechanisms that had allowed them to prosper. Whites now claimed that what distinguished them from black people was their ability to take care of their neighborhoods, to become responsible, home-owning citizens without asking for ‘government handouts.’ They concluded that white people, in sharp contrast to racial minorities, functioned quite capable in a robust, free market for residence, an argument reflecting their fundamental misunderstanding of the forces driving metropolitan change (Freund Ch.1 pg.26).
Freund believes that the 1960s gave rise to radically new politics of racial privilege particularly with the federal governments’ mortgage policies. Freund examines how the rise of municipal zoning and the creation of federal mortgage programs shaped suburban growth and suburban politics to protect the growth. According to Freund: Federal initiatives and policies fueled the resegregation of the nation’s metropolitan regions by race and by wealth. The federal government was instrumental in standardizing and promoting a restrictive zoning doctrine that empowered homeowners to exclude ‘incompatible’ development and populations from their communities. State interventions helped popularize a new rationale for the exclusion of minorities from the fast-growing suburbs. The federal government put considerable force behind the theory that racial segregation was driven not by white racism but by economic necessity, that exclusion was a “market imperative” (Freund Ch.1 pg. 43-44).
The lending institutions created selective credit programs which subsidized a new mortgage market that made suburban growth and homeownership exclusive to whites. The term “racial profiling” is referred today how police treat whites versus blacks during traffic stops and other police involvement. History should be studied carefully or historical patterns involving race are doomed to be repeated. Color or ethnicity should not be a factor for homeownership. When groups such as the NAACP complained of unfair housing, then state and federal governments changed the language from racism to zoning and class separation. The roots of racism are firmly entrenched in the Detroit metropolitan area. Transportation, economic welfare, and health all play a role in affordable housing. The city of Detroit is more progressive in community organizations for affordable housing. Freund discusses how the suburbs such as Royal Oak and Dearborn have used politics and restrictive zoning to separate minorities from established white neighborhoods. The city of Dearborn has a large Arab community that has significant political and economic influence. Communities in Dearborn are separated by culture. The impact of the history of homeowner associations and segregation in cities like Dearborn remains a topic for future study.
Interview with Kelly Vickers Associate Director of Housing and Revitalization City of Detroit
Soyk: What current projects are you working on right now sir?
Vickers: I guess I’ll start with a broader perspective on what my responsibilities are. Housing Underwriting team has four divisions within it. So, I’m responsible for the multi-family development team. Who manages the city’s home program and other investments into affordable housing projects? I’m also responsible for the asset management division, who carries on the long-term compliance and monitoring of those investments. The homelessness services division is responsible for the emergency solutions grant and for working with the continual care in a lot of different ways and they participate with a lot of work groups and then finally tax abatements are also approved through the housing underwriting division. So, and that applies to all commercial properties in the city that are looking for some sort of tax abatement. There are approvals needed throughout all sorts of different areas of the city, and there’s even some involvement from the DEGC measuring the total impact from that loss of revenue versus the expected gain from the economic activity, but in my division we actually sort of coordinate all those activities and get them in front of city council. Those are the four major groups under my per view and they all have a number of projects that they are working on at any given time and especially over the last six months with the pandemic things slowed down on some fronts initially, but then the city was the recipient of thirty million dollars from the Cares Act. A lot of that money is running through my division. We’re actually getting ready to ramp up. We’re hiring staff and gearing up to facilitate several new programs and move a bunch of these federal dollars to their final recipients.
Soyk: How has politics played a role with your organization? Such as the mayor of Detroit?
Vickers: Well, you know the politics are a real part of it. He’s (Mayor Mike Duggan) got, you know, a very bold and ambitious plan for revitalizing the city and housing is a key part of that. So naturally HRD is involved in many of those major initiatives whether it’s Strategic Neighborhoods Fund or Affordable Housing Leverage Fund. You know we try to design our programs in a way that it will be in natural alignment with those priorities. I think for the most part it’s a matter of that program’s design and of course we have two bosses. So, the mayor, we all report to the mayor and he sets the priorities, he sets the division of the city, but we also report to HUD. So, anything we’re doing has to fit within the framework that HUD provides us when they, because we’re largely grant funded. We do have some city funds that we put into these programs as well but a lot of it in fact a vast majority of it are federal dollars.
Soyk: What are some of the plans the city of Detroit has for affordable housing? Aging neighborhoods that have blight? And multi-family housing?
Vickers: This is potentially a long answer, so I’ll start at the larger program level and allow for follow up questions. I mentioned a couple of the programs already. The Affordable Housing Leverage Fund is a program that we’ve been putting together for a couple of years now. We’ve been fundraising from philanthropy and corporations. We’ve had an original target for 250M dollars for this fund. We’ve since had to scale back a little bit. We are finally getting ready to open it up officially with our partners at LISK (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) or at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority. The Affordable Housing Leverage Fund is getting ready to officially open up. We’ve been working on the pipeline for over a year maybe close to a year and a half now, so we have several projects that LISK has been working with the developer’s sort of targeting closing shortly after the fund opens. You may have read about it in the paper or elsewhere. The decision for this fund was very ambitious very bold it was designed to preserve affordability for 10,000 units of affordable housing in the city as well as provide funding for 2,000 new units of affordable housing. It has to do that through leveraging of resources which is where the name kind of comes from so it is not just leveraging the city’s federal dollars that we get from HUD with these contributions from cooperation’s and philanthropic groups and our partners from the state, but also private capital equity and that from private lenders as well. So, if you look at how much it actually costs to rehab a building if you wanted to do 12,000 units over five years 250M dollars wouldn’t be enough. It’s enough to leverage all of those other debt and equity instruments that you need to get it done. There’s also the Strategic Neighborhood’s Fund which identify ten important neighborhoods throughout the city of Detroit and in each of those neighborhoods there’s sort of a main street component where there’s going to be investment into those streetscapes and to those commercial corridors to improve those storefronts, but then around those sort of theme-street areas those hubs, there’s also investment going into the homes, the single family homes in the neighborhoods around those as well as multi-family development to help sort of anchor those investments. There’s also a park component to each one of those neighborhoods. There’s a lot going on there. It’s sort of a comprehensive approach which is why it is the Strategic Neighborhoods Fund. That’s all focused on mostly new development that’s not limited to affordable housing per say, but there is an affordable housing component in each one of those neighborhood plans. Beyond that, there’s also a lot of work going into Corktown. Obviously, Ford purchasing the train station is making a huge investment there bringing in thousands of jobs. Corktown is going to be a focal point of a lot of investment from a lot of different areas and so the city is going through a transformation planning activity for the greater Corktown area which includes north Corktown and historic Corktown. We are looking to apply for some grant dollars from HUD to assist with that. We recently went through a request for a proposal process to recruit a housing implementation entity which would be a sort of master developer to kickstart a lot of our affordable housing development in that area. So, we see somewhere between 8 or 900 new units of affordable housing just in the Corktown area. That doesn’t even touch on all the market rate opportunity that exist there. Even more recently Amazon announced that they are building a new facility, and they bought the state fair grounds. They are going to be bringing in thousands of jobs so that’s very new, and that’s going to be another thing that we’ll be closely involved in because you have to have housing to address the needs of all those jobs that are coming in, and so that’s extremely preliminary and that work is just beginning right now, but bringing in those jobs and folks moving into the city to work those jobs and into that specific neighborhoods around the state fairgrounds; it’s going to produce more pressure on housing into the area throughout the greater downtown area there’s been a lot of pressure on upward rising rents which has the potential to force people out further from the downtown area which is one of our major goals is to preserve affordability for folks who stayed with Detroit through the worst of times. They deserve to feel the benefit and enjoy all of the growth and the positive things that are happening now. There’s always a new challenge.
Soyk: How are the new construction projects in Detroit, like Little Caesar’s District, and what’s going on in Delray, can you elaborate about that?
Vickers: I’m sure if I can speak right now at this moment what’s going on down Fort street towards Delray. I have to look into the pipeline to tell you specifically what’s happening there. I do know around the arena district which you also mentioned we’ve been engaged with a number of developers on their plans for that area. It’s an interesting one because not far from the arena district along Cass avenue there’s already quite a bit of affordability. In the arena district and in midtown it’s a very interesting market because there actually is quite a bit of affordable housing there already and so the trick is to find the right balance between continuing to strengthen that market and attract (commercial development), but also preserving affordability for folks so they can stay in their neighborhoods and in their homes and increasing opportunity for folks at every income level.
Soyk: What needs to change to restore Detroit back to where it should be? How does Detroit compare with other cities like Chicago? Was inadequate mass transit one of the causes of Detroit’s decline? Detroit had elaborated streetcar routes before the automotive industry boomed, and all the tracks were removed.
Vickers: Clearly transportation is a critical piece of the affordable housing crisis all across the nation. In Detroit we’re such a car-based city and area that there hasn’t been a lot of investment in public transportation and rail systems. I don’t think there’s only one problem to focus on; there’s a lot of system changes that are taking place and that need to continue and so many things are codependent and they’re interconnected. The housing issues are connected to the transportation issues. They’re also connected to the schools. Folks don’t want to raise families where there aren’t great schools, and we’ve got food access issues, where there isn’t great access to fruits and vegetables and grocery stores. So, we have to invest in everything, and it is hard to do everything all at once especially in a city as big as Detroit is spread out. Which is why we see strategic neighborhoods focusing in on these hubs and sort of building strength in these localized spots that can become self-sustaining, and then it grows out from there. As they grow out they start to connect and the whole city comes back. It’s an incredibly challenging task.
Soyk: How does health and welfare play a part in your programs?
Vickers: Very much so. Especially over the last six or seven months. When the pandemic first came to Detroit and southeast Michigan we were overly concerned with our homeless population. We set up some isolation centers. Two or three isolation centers for homeless folks to if they were having COVID like symptoms, and we had to expand our homeless shelter footprint because there wasn’t enough space in the shelters for folks to socially distance. So, we needed to double the square footage of what we had available for folks in shelters. We had great relationships and partnerships with folks in the community and space that we could quickly make available. When you do that, there’s all sorts of upgrading operating tasks and contracts that we need to enter into. We need to find beds and linen, people to clean, and we have to find food and staff to manage these facilities. That’s just to take care of that basic level of keeping a roof over your head so that doesn’t even start to talk about all of the needs of the hospitals, the health centers, all of the testing capacity that needed to be brought up and then getting the testing on the sites, the isolation centers, and the overflow centers. A lot of work from a lot of different people went into that and I think the result was actually pretty incredible. We had a lot of space that never got used. You plan for the worst-case scenario, especially back in March and April nobody knew how bad the pandemic was going to get. Not that it’s over yet, but that first spike was a very scary time. We had centers that were ready to go if we needed them, and fortunately we didn’t have to use all of them. That’s a good thing.
Soyk: I heard schools were considered for medical facilities or for placing beds?
Vickers: I think Marygrove was one of those where we had the space available and we were working through some of the logistics of getting it equipped and ready and we ended up not having to use it.
Soyk: Has any consideration been given to historical properties or restoration?
Vickers: Absolutely, an interesting problem with some of the historical buildings is that this happens every once in a while is a developer buys an old building around downtown where there are folks that have been living there for a long time that pay very little in rent, sometimes 2 or 300 dollars a month, and of course the developer wants to bring this up to market where their seeking a profit. We don’t want folks to get kicked out of their homes. We try to work with these developers to find ways to preserve that affordability and a lot of times that involves helping with the historical preservation of that building. We do have programs that can assist with historic rehabilitation. We also have our tax incentives and tax abatements that can help close a gap on a historic rehab and condition for getting the city to help with these things they have to preserve that affordability for those folks.
Soyk: What is the relationship between community and residential housing in Detroit?
Vickers: Community support is critical. We always want to see that there’s local support for any project that’s going to get built, and folks in the neighborhood should have a say and should get to voice their support or opposition for those projects and sometimes there are folks that you just can’t please. There are folks that just don’t want any building to happen and it’s important for them to have the chance to raise their voice, but mostly folks are supportive of all of these affordable housing projects that were bringing to the city and all of these units that we’re bringing online, and I think it’s been a positive relationship with the community.
Soyk: Any thoughts about people trying to build in the city like Dan Gilbert?
Vickers: We’ve got a lot of good developers coming into the city and we’ve got folks that have been with the city for a while. Dan Gilbert’s invested a lot and continues to invest a lot, and we’re excited that he wants to do that.
Soyk: What’s your vision for the City of Detroit? Where would you like to see Detroit in the next 10 years?
Vickers: I think that we’re on an exceptionally good path. I think if we continue to work on all of these systems that we’ve been working on we can add strength to a lot of things and continue to bring the city back. In ten years, I’d like to see that there’s a thriving and healthy market for housing and adequate transport, adequate access to health care services, adequate access to food and all of the amenities that are needed for a thriving community.
Interview with Alexa Eisenberg Co-author of Neighborhood Context, Homeownership and Home Value: An Ecological Analysis of Implications for Health
I interviewed Alexa Eisenberg via Zoom on October 20, 2020. I wanted to get a health perspective on urban housing, and how “blight” affects the health of a community. Miss. Eisenberg’s interests include urban health equity, housing justice, community-based participatory research, and public policy regarding housing. Alexa Eisenberg is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 2017, Miss. Eisenberg was a co-author of a publication concerning “ Neighborhood Context, Homeownership and Home Value: An Ecological Analysis for Health” with four other authors.
Soyk: What are you currently working on?
Eisenberg: I will sum up the work I have done acquiring my degree. You may ask me questions based upon my work. I entered into the program in 2016. I discovered 2015 was the largest year for tax foreclosures in the city of Detroit. I estimate there were six thousand four hundred to ten thousand homeowners that lost their housing due to tax foreclosures in that year alone. I came into the public housing program to make a difference with public policy. I was concerned with public health and the effects of tax foreclosure. I take a public health lens on everything I study. I examine how circumstances impact people and spaces unequally. I also examine the ramifications that might affect existing housing quality rooted in systems of structural racism and economic exploitation through capitalism. I examine areas of inequality based on public health. I am also interested in the driving forces and consequences involved with tax foreclosures. This has been my focus over the last five years. I am also involved with the United Community Housing Coalition that serves an exceptionally large number of people. The UCHC is the primary resource for low-income people for housing assistance, and they assist with tax foreclosure counselling services. I learned about a tax relief program offered by the city of Detroit. People that live near or below the federal income poverty level should be exempt from property taxes. In 2016, very few people knew about the programs available, and the people that knew had a difficult time with qualifying. There was an ACLU lawsuit aimed at that federal program during 2016. I became extremely interested in that program which is now called The Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program, and it used to be called The Property Tax Exemption Program. I did some research on the exemption program and how it works. I partnered with UCHC on that research. We interviewed one hundred people who were at risk for tax foreclosure, and we talked to them about the barriers they face trying to get access to the program. The research opened many doors and developed partnerships with organizations around the city. One of the organizations is the Coalition for Property Tax Justices. I have been involved with that organization for a while. There has been a great deal of advocacy and efforts in many different directions around tax foreclosure, and perhaps through your own research you are familiar with some of that. Tax foreclosures played a role in producing negative outcomes not just for housing stability, but also neighborhood property destruction. I am broadly interested in how housing policy exacerbates health and equality through that question. I am also looking at how housing policy reproduces racial structures over time. I was looking at how housing policies throughout history perpetuated segregation, and how foreclosures have become commonplace in segregated areas. One of the implications of tax foreclosure is tax foreclosures produce a market of speculation in the city of Detroit. Investors are coming into the city and buying property “dirt” cheap and using various systems to turn profit. I do not know if you have investigated the work of Josh Acres or Eric Seymore, but I encourage you to look into their research. They have done a great deal of research around who buys tax foreclosed properties. They tend to be large scale investors, people who live outside the city, and they tend to adopt business practices that prioritize short term profit gains over the people that they house or the neighborhoods that the properties are located. They will do things like property “milking” which is essentially buying a property that is unbelievably cheap and in bad condition, and then renting it without any repairs. The rental market is so tight here because so many people have been dispossessed through foreclosure, and because the housing quality is so poor that much of it has been rendered uninhabitable, many low-income people with bad credit scores take what they can get. Another practice investors have used are land-contracts. Land-contracts are historically predatory property sales that historically targeted black people. Land-contracts were used when historically black people were excluded from owning homes. You take a rather desperate group of people, and you give them an offer that you would not accept unless if you could accept anything else. Land-contracts have become the main form of property sales in Detroit. They exceed mortgages in the city. This is like becoming a homeowner without the benefits of home ownership. People are not building equity while they are making payments on a home. If you miss a payment, then you can be evicted from the property and all the payments that you made would just be pocketed by the owner. Investors also use diverse tactics when they do not think they can make any money on a property. The property will just sit there and return to tax foreclosure, and eventually demolished by the city. We recently looked at the difference between tax foreclosure sale and the likelihood of childhood lead poisoning. We connected cases of lead poisoning to their property owners, and we compared children living in rental properties that were owned by people who had bought them in the last foreclosure option to other children. We found that those children were fifty percent more likely to be lead poisoned than others while controlling for everything possible that we can control. The research I have been looking at is the downstream consequences for tax foreclosure concerning health. One of those being in the form of lead poisoning. My dissertation focuses more broadly on tax foreclosure patterns, racial discrimination, and health equity.
Soyk: Do you believe that the same issues that happened in the 1960s are happening today? For example, the riots, the looting, and racial injustice?
Eisenberg: There is something that is a theoretical term for that in public health called Serial Displacement regarding the recurrence with these patterns in history. Essentially, policy driven displacement defined as similar groups of people in similar areas over time. We can examine how housing policy going back to when large groups of black people started arriving in the city of Detroit during the Great Migration. The city had racial covenants and redlining restricting people to exceedingly small areas of the city. There were speculative landlords operating in those spaces driving up the costs of rent and driving down the quality of the housing. Overcrowding was a main issue as more than thousands of people came into the city. People were overcrowded in Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Urban renewal came in and declared those places slums and destroying the life and culture and housing stock in that area without replacing it. As people start pushing out in new neighborhoods and buying properties there is blockbusting happening, more speculation, extraction of wealth, but you have a stable home ownership population that grows here. Detroit has one of the highest levels of black home ownership of any city in the United States, but you see various housing policies come in and undermine that along with the role of private banks through sub-time lending. Detroit had one of the highest foreclosure sub-time lending penetration rates and foreclosure rates in the country. One of three habitable homeowner owned homes were foreclosed between 2005 and 2014 which is an astonishing figure. This event was prior to the tax foreclosure crisis which occurred afterwards, and the tax foreclosure crisis is connected to tax foreclosure policy at the state level along with its history of racism. Why people cannot afford to pay their property taxes? That has to do with two things. One is chronically low income which has to do with labor from an employment determination, education, inequalities over the history of segregation, but also the cost of taxes. Property taxes are extremely high in the city of Detroit because the tax base is low. White people left and brought their wealth with them, and the housing stock has been disinvested in. When a city has a small tax base to pay high tax rates, and the city government has been decimated through austerity measures because of those exact same reasons the result was the tax accessor’s office was working ineffectively. Tax accessed values come from the tax assessor’s office. For many years the assessor’s office was deeply underfunded, and improperly assessed housing. One in three properties went through a tax foreclosure, and forty-seven thousand people were displaced through tax foreclosure. Afterwards there was a market shift from a homeowner to a renter market with all of these tools to exploit renters. Rents are increasing rapidly, properties are declining in terms of quality, and it is almost impossible to find a livable rental unit that is affordable.
Soyk: I am a property owner in Detroit that seen the property taxes increase three hundred dollars when Dennis Archer was in office, and my taxes were increased another five hundred dollars when Kwame Kilpatrick was in office. The property taxes I pay in the city of Detroit are remarkably similar to what I pay in the suburbs of Detroit without receiving the same city services. I have also witnessed people abandoning their houses, and when the houses are foreclosed the neighborhood deteriorates along with the public schools closing. What can be done or what is being done to change the course of the neighborhoods?
Eisenberg: Generally speaking, are we addressing these problems? No. These problems started with the federal government, and they need to be solved by the federal government. We are in no state of society in which that is going to happen right now. To paint a big picture view of all this, which is sometimes not so helpful because it requires such large-scale change, to actually improve the housing market here and to foster racial equity in a meaningful way we would need massive federal intervention and stimulus into the city of Detroit. The city cannot operate under a policy of austerity and produce equitable outcomes. The City of Detroit will potentially get worse after COVID-19. Detroit operates in a contact of scarcity, and it does the things to serve itself to produce outcomes under capitalism. Detroit tends to prioritize wealthier and whiter residents over poor and black people in terms of where the city allocates its investments, and Detroit is nowhere near the scale of investing in affordable housing in the way that we need to here. There is the role of the federal government in terms of making sure the city can operate. Creating funds for things like home repair. Detroit needs billions of dollars of home repair. Detroit needs public investments in affordable housing. Detroit needs subsidized housing for people. Detroit needs public housing for people. The city needs to reckon with the history of racism and adopting explicit anti-racist ways of addressing that. Change can come from the federal government, but it also needs to come from the regional level. I am from the white suburbs. I am from West Bloomfield which is one of the wealthiest places in Michigan. I think so much of the devastation in Detroit is directly caused by the ability for white people to leave, and like I said take their wealth with them, keeping their wealth in their communities. We need to have policies at the metropolitan level that redistribute wealth, so people do not get to determine their public life based upon their zip codes, and what municipality people get to call their home. At the city level we are always operating under the crisis contact. There have been several developments in the area of tax foreclosure prevention. For a while, we had to convince the mayor that tax foreclosure was harmful for the city. People needed to stay in their homes, and that tax foreclosure causes blight. The city cannot just knock down houses to remove blight and stop people from being displaced from their housing. For years it felt like UCHC was just trying to get that point across until finally the Mayor came onboard along with the Wayne County Treasurer. There is some acceptance of the issue being a problem and the city and the county having a role in solving it. The way that we address poverty in this country is deeply flawed. We make everybody jump through fire hoops to get through programs that only address a fraction of the problem. Out of the programs that are considered promising in the area of tax foreclosure are not blanket policies that will help everybody. They are policies that if you can navigate through the bureaucracy to get the carrot at the end of the maze, then people will get the help they need with their taxes. It is not going to help the majority of people, and particularly when people are suffering to the degree of their hardship right now. It is extremely hard to balance all things. Taxes are not always at the top of somebody’s mind even though they are a massive threat for housing stability. I think just packing all of these programs together in the way that we have is not going to be a viable solution. However, there are pathways for people who can navigate them. People can get access to UCHC, and the UCHC can counsel them to get qualified through various programs like Pay As You Stay. These programs help low-income homeowners with large tax-debt that cannot afford to pay their taxes. They have to first fill out a property tax exemption application which is a very lengthy process. They have to get approved for it, and that puts the applicant in a pool to apply for the program Pay As You Stay with the Wayne County Treasurer. The program will eliminate most of the applicant’s tax debt in which the applicant may only have to pay ten percent of their tax debt. This is a smaller amount in which they can pay over three years. For example, the program can help someone that owes five thousand in tax debt to the point they are paying eighty dollars a month over three years. It could be fifty dollars a month for some people. Pay As You Stay is an excellent program that can help many people, but many others will not qualify or simply will not know of the programs available. Next year the tax foreclosure risk could be extremely high because of the pandemic. There are no tax foreclosures this year, thank God. People still have to pay their taxes, so the problem is not addressed. We really did not talk about evictions or rentals, but that is going to be awful. The city is doing next to nothing to address that.
Soyk: Since your major is based on public health, can you talk about the area around the Marathon Plant, and the area around Little Caesar’s District?
Eisenberg: When I went over that long period of serial displacements, gentrification is a huge part of that process. Some of the disguise, of gentrification, is people like to call it “market forces.” We can see in the City of Detroit the role the city government plays in producing gentrification. The Little Caesar’s Arena would never have happened without massive subsidies from the City of Detroit. The deal around the Little Caesar’s district was extremely scandalous in how much the city was forking over for the most notorious landlord in the city. There is nobody worse out there than Mike Ilitch. He sat on all those properties as a speculator, and the city just gave him tax subsidies to build an arena. Detroit already had an arena. The city took away school funding that it desperately needed, and Ilitch built all those communities with no affordable housing. People do not feel comfortable living in the affordable housing that exists. Obviously, rent has increased in the district. There are not many apartment buildings in Detroit that have affordable housing for people. There is a large single-family housing stock in the Detroit area. Apartment buildings are typically communities for seniors to live. The apartments located in midtown, or near downtown, gives seniors access to services they need. Those places are going to be non-existent soon enough. The rents are naturally increasing in the affordable housing in that area or already have increased. It is highly predictable that the rents would increase. There is something called the Inclusionary Housing Ordinance at the city government level, but that was a long fight amongst activists to try to get affordability into that which never occurred. If an investor gets large subsidies from the city, then they have to build affordable units (not necessarily for poor people). The investor does not have to build practically any of them. If investors do not get any subsidies from the city, then they are not obligated to do any affordable housing at all.
Soyk: The Ilitch family made many promises to the city to build affordable housing, but only delivered parking structures to serve their own needs. I plan to interview Francis Grunow to get his insight on the Little Caesar’s district.
Eisenberg: I know Francis. He runs an organization called ‘Declare Detroit’.
Soyk: Do you know any information about the Marathon Plant and all the health problems with residents that lived near the plant? The city closed the Fort street bridge and forced residents to move by refusing city services like sanitation, fire, and police. The city forced people to sell their homes below market value to coincide with the Marathon Plant. The city built a park and leveled all those houses. What are the implications for public health in that area of Southwest Detroit?”
Eisenberg: Another term used in public health is Catastrophic Disinvestment. The term relates to cutting off city services to a particular area for the result of people eventually disappearing. This is a process that has been ramped up with the international bridge actually going through the planning stages. I would suggest for you to read a book by Roderick and Deborah Wallace titled, ‘When New York City Burns and Public Health Crumbles.’ The book is about New York City under the Nixon administration’s policies. Another term would be called ‘benign neglect’. The term refers to New York City’s fire department ignoring calls to different parts of the Bronx. As a result, massive areas of the Bronx were allowed to burn causing all the houses to be destroyed and all the people left. What I noticed are these same patterns are emerging again amongst black and poor people. Delray actually has a large amount of white people concentrated in that area.
Soyk: What is being done to restore neighborhoods? How can residents develop pride in their communities?
Eisenberg: Black Detroit city officials are always operating under the confines of the current economic reality. The city has no money to budget effectively for housing, nor is it likely that any money will be arriving any time soon. The metropolitan region is deeply racist, and the region will never come to terms with its own racism anytime soon. The federal and state governments do not fund cities. Can you really blame someone working at the city level for operating under that reality, and not having the resources needed to operate the city with its full potential? From a structural perspective it is hard to point the finger at a city official to say, ‘This is your fault.’ The condition of the city is not Mayor Duggan’s fault. Is Mayor Duggan doing the best he can do to protect poor and black people? No. I do not think so. There are ways of changing people’s mindset to at least be frank about what they are doing. In an ideal world that social and economic reality would be different, and people would create opportunities for higher levels of government to fund lower levels of government. People in government would regenerate redistribution mechanisms at the federal, state, and metropolitan level. People would acknowledge historical disparities along with wealth and opportunities across places. There will be policies set up as checks and balances to correct disparities. In an ideal world there would not be a need to change anyone’s mindset. If the social and economic realities would change, then people’s mindset would leave that contact of scarcity and enter into a mindset of servitude. People in government must serve the people that live here in a way that they need to be served. Therefore, addressing their constituent’s whole gallery of needs. I do think the country, as a whole, is reckoning with racism. I think the city understands its racism. Detroit is a black city with mostly black representatives. I think there exists a great deal of classism here. There is an increasing amount of poor blaming that still goes on. I notice a lack of mindset, at the city level, that poor people are not to blame for their problems. Poor people cannot fix their problems for themselves, and policies created to address the aspects and realities of poverty. Poor people should not have to go through a million ‘hoops’ to get to something that can help them. There is not enough help to go around to help all the poor people living in the city. The city is forced to discriminate, and only offer help to families that want the help. It is really impossible to disconnect from one another. Do people really hate poor people or is it just because people in government are always operating under the mindset that resources are limited.
Soyk: People should not have to die or live at a sub-human standard just because they are poor. A person should not have to live in poverty just because he or she is born a certain race. One circumstance I noticed has changed recently is people elected to Detroit City Council have to represent their own district. Do you feel that the corruption level in City Council has decreased resulting from this change?
Eisenberg: In general, I think the discussion of corruption in city government is a racialized topic. I try to stay away from that topic. I do not think our government is any more corrupt than other governments. I really hate the use of the word ‘blight’. It comes from urban renewal, and the use of the word has always been racialized. I would encourage you to look into the history of that term. I am not blaming you because it is a really hard word to not use to describe things, and the word is used widely. I think if you write something for your project it is worth talking about the history of that word. I think Thomas Sugrue has actually done some research on the history of the word.
Soyk: Can you tell me a little more about The United Community Housing Coalition, and your involvement with that organization?
Eisenberg: Just check out their website. They do a lot of stuff. The UCHC not only does foreclosure prevention, but they also do comprehensive low-income housing services. For example, they do legal services, free legal counseling for people that are facing eviction, housing placement, and a home repair department. I am actually involved in a research study for them right now, and I have a formal research relationship with the UCHC. I evaluate their home repair program right now, and I am also on their board of directors. I stay extremely involved with their work in different capacities.
Interview with Francis Grunow History and Architecture Enthusiast Founder of Detroit Synergy, Declare Detroit, Corridors Alliance And Marche Du Nain Rouge
I interviewed Francis Grunow on October 29, 2020 via Zoom. Grunow and I share the same love of historical Detroit architecture. I met Francis on a group tour of the Eisenberg Project in The colloquium “The History and Culture of Detroit”. I watched an HBO special with the host Bryant Gumbel in which Francis Grunow was sharing the misrepresentations of the Ilitch family regarding the promises involving “Little Caesar’s District”. Grunow also shared with me about a custom he helped create in Detroit called Marche Du Nain Rouge. Detroit’s history has French culture and customs. The name Detroit has French origin. Marche Du Nain Rouge is Detroit’s version of Mardi Gras with a twist. The Nain Rouge is meant to unite Detroiters against corruption in city politics. Nain Rouge makes fun of the city’s problems by pointing them out, and the festivalgoers receive the pleasure of kicking him out of the city.
Soyk: What brought you to Detroit?
Grunow: I grew up in Detroit. I was born in Detroit in 1974 at Hutzel Hospital or so I was told. I do not remember (laughing). My dad grew up in Dearborn, and my mom is actually from Scotland. She is from Scotland, and my parents met in Africa. After they met she returned to the United States, got married, and had me. Afterwards, they went back with me to Ghana for several years. I had this early period when I was here (United States), then I travelled there (Ghana), and then I came back here. I came back to the U.S. around age four or five, and I lived in Detroit since then. I went to college in New York City, I stayed in New York City for about ten years, and moved back here (Detroit) in the year 2001.
Soyk: Have you lived in Detroit for most of your life?
Grunow: Yes the majority of my life minus a ten-year stint in New York, a two-year stint in Ghana, and I am forty-six, so I guess that adds up to thirty-four years in Detroit.
Soyk: What got you interested in the buildings of Detroit?
Grunow: I probably fell in love with the buildings in Detroit in high school, and I had a project at Cass Tech where we were asked to write about a specific subject. The class was a year in duration. It was kind of a senior class paper, and I got hooked up with this group called Preservation Wayne. It is classified as an architecture history organization. I interned for them, and we focused on a street called Ferry Avenue. Ferry Ave. is located near the cultural center. Do you know that street? Are you familiar with the area?
Soyk: Not off hand. What year was that?
Grunow: During the time I was in that class was around 1991 or 1992. Ferry street has a real interesting history, and what I really like is how it combined the study of these cool structures with social history. ( Grunow shares the screen to show me houses on Ferry Ave.) These are the big, beautiful mansions that was built at the turn of the last century, and there are really cool stories associated with them. The houses, on the street, are pretty much intact. There has not been much demolition, and the stories associated with this street are cool because they really encapsulate the people in Detroit as well as the culture in Detroit during the nineteenth century. For example, this building right here is the Hecker Smiley mansion.
Soyk: It is like a castle.
Grunow: You might have seen it if you were driving on Woodward, and it was built by Frank Hecker who was very wealthy. He made his money from railcars, and he had a neighbor named Freer who lived right next to him. Together they owned this company called The Peninsular Railcar Company, and what is cool about that was their company was on the waterfront. They made a ton of money in the years before the auto industry, and really set the stage for coach building in the city. Freer who was the partner ( Grunow shows me a picture of Freer’s house) was a famous art collector. ( Grunow shows me a picture of a painting in Freer’s house ) Freer collected all of this Asian art. What his collection amounted to serve as the basis for a Freer gallery of art along the mall in Washington D.C.. Have you heard of that place? It is the Sackler Freer greatest collection of Asian art in the country that originated in Detroit. It was in his house which is now used by Wayne State. The name Ferry comes from the Ferry Sea Packing. There is an incredibly famous room in Freer’s house called the Peacock Room. This really beautiful room ( Grunow shows me a picture of the room) in London that Freer bought and brought it back to Detroit. Afterwards, he sent it to D.C.. The room traveled from London to Detroit to D.C.. Those guys represent the gilded age of Detroit. Shortly thereafter, a Jewish community moved through Ferry street. They created Synagogues, community centers, and businesses in that area along with many social organizations. In the 1930s the black middle class also moved along Ferry street. They had businesses and organizations that were supportive of black business ownership. One of the businesses was the Bertha Hansbury School of Music. She had a huge impact on black people in the community. The name Ferry comes from the D.M. Ferry seat company. They are famous for creating sea packets. One of the warehouses for Ferry seat company is located in Greektown where the restaurant Fishbones is located. These stories got me very excited and showed me how architecture can help make a place much richer especially when examples of the culture remain. Every time people build we do not just demolish and build again. Architecture is a really important portal into the past. That is what got me really excited studying cities and studying architecture.
Soyk: I grew up in Southwest Detroit, and the landmark I remember is the train station.
Grunow: It is awesome that landmark is being renovated. Have you seen any recent pictures of that?
Soyk: Not recently, but I have seen some pictures from a year or two ago.
Grunow: Someone that I know has some technology that has scanned images of buildings. He did this for Michigan Central. He was just inside the train station recently. He has this thing called matter port. I am not sure exactly; it is like a scanning system. With the technology a person can virtually walk through a building. Here are all the places he has mapped out. ( Grunow shows me renovation computer images inside the train station ) This is what it looks like inside now. It is currently under reconstruction, and with the software a person can literally move around.
Soyk: That is amazing!
Grunow: Obviously, Ford has completed a lot, but there is still much to do.
Soyk: I seen your interview with Bryant Gumbel on HBO sports in 2019 regarding Ilitch holdings. Can you expound on the progress made or lack of progress on affordable housing since that interview?
Grunow: Basically, for about a year after the interview, there has been some building in the Little Caesar’s District. Since COVID-19 took place in metro Detroit there has not been any activity at the event center. One of the things we really tried to focus on with the HBO piece was how many promises were broken around the new residential construction they were supposed to build, some of the buildings Ilitch holdings were supposed to renovate, and I really wanted to highlight how they have not brought any of those projects online. The only project that was completed was the arena. They also built some institutional related buildings such as the Mike Ilitch School of Business, and Wayne State’s Business School has moved downtown. They are just finishing now the MC Sports facility located between the Wayne State building and the arena. That facility is nearing completion. I have not been down there recently. I have nothing against those buildings; however, the way the Little Caesar’s District was sold, to the city, that it would be a huge catalyst for the area, and it would be a place for folks to live in that area. In that area Ilitch Holdings failed dramatically and have not lived up to their promises to complete seven hundred residential units by now. Those projects are all in some state of limbo.
Soyk: When I go online to view an aerial portrait of the area all I can see is a collection of parking lots.
Grunow: They have invested in parking, and that has been their biggest money maker. That is how people get down to the arena, so they control all of those parcels, and keep all of that money. There has been quite a bit of criticism about that because in the past the city would have a controlling interest over a parking structure that was built on public land. In this case the Ilitch’s get to keep all of that money. It was a really bad deal many people think including myself for the city. It means Ilitch Holdings controls the future and without actually investing in the future just leaves more of the same. I have nothing against the Detroit Pistons or the Detroit Red Wings. I think going to events like that is great, but one of the key things they said they would be doing is creating a neighborhood.
Soyk: My directed study is based on the decline of Detroit’s neighborhoods, gentrification, and causes of blight. When I was attending (a class on Detroit), I wrote a paper on mass transit. You were on the committee for mass transit in Detroit. How does Detroit compare with other cities, in regard to blight and gentrification, with Detroit’s lack of mass transit?
Grunow: That is a good question. The M-1 Q-line had an advisory committee. I was on that committee for a while. That is the new rail line that travels from the New Center midtown to downtown Detroit along Woodward. Growing up in Detroit and having the perspective of living in other places like New York. I have travelled to other places maybe you have seen examples of mass transit in other cities?
Grunow: That is a great example. In Chicago passengers can take the elevated train to the northern suburbs, downtown, and Chicago O’Hara airport by mass transit. You can literally travel all around the city without an automobile. A person living in a northern suburb, that works in the city of Chicago, can drive their car to a local commuter rail center and commute downtown in a matter of twenty to forty minutes. Once the person is downtown it eliminates the need for parking space like around The Little Caesar’s Arena. All of that space can be utilized for other uses and make for a much greater environment. People can have an office next to businesses or residences. Architects can build taller, and denser buildings. Mass transit is a huge part of that. Detroit has a bus system that has been proved ineffective, quite a bit recently, and is still such a small part of how people commute in metro Detroit. We are doing a little bit better incrementally with some ideas like Complete Street Square. Streets are not just for cars. They are for people walking along sidewalks, and they are used for cyclists (I use my bike quite a bit). What I am getting at is there are a lot of little things that can happen if the city is based on a mass transit model, where a city is empowering the use of mass transit, the city is capable of doing many things. In my opinion, that is the key to building strong cities.
Soyk: I agree with you on that observation. Especially, when you mentioned the parking issue. With a mass transit system Detroit does not need all of the parking lots. The city can actually be destined to become more beautiful. Utilize the space for people to live. You are working on your own house In Detroit. What are some of the challenges for Detroit residents to acquire home improvement loans and hire contractors for remodeling?
Grunow: I just had an issue finding a plumber. Just finding contractors to show up is a challenge. Single-house construction and renovation is hard on a city resident. Especially if the dwelling has been vacant for a while. Our house was probably ten years vacant, and because of that all of the plumbing was removed from scrappers. Most of the electrical wiring was removed as well. When a home buyer starts in that kind of condition, and the amount of work that has to go in renovating a house is extraordinary. We took our house down to the studs, and we rented seven or eight thirty-yard dumpsters just to move material so we can get to a place where we are able to build it back up. It is a labor of love, as well as an investment. You might want to ask me in a couple of years whether it was a worthy investment. The idea that is an investment comes mostly through sweat equity through the time that we spend on it. There are many challenges that we are hoping will be worthwhile. The city has lost so many people, and the houses have been left open to the elements. Water damage is terrible. The roof has a hole in it. Water can do thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. It is something that is a big issue in the city, and actually this election year there is a question in front of voters about a proposal for a bond that would be for demolition. If you followed the last few years there has been a lot of demolition based on public money coming from the federal government. This bond will be another two hundred-fifty million I believe.
Soyk: How has Homeowner’s Insurance and Automobile Insurance been a challenge for Detroit residents?
Grunow: Car Insurance is something Detroit has a long history of having the highest insurance rates in the country. People say that is because of the cost it takes to insure cars based on risk, and the amount of coverage because so many people are uninsured. Those two incidences result in high premiums. There has been a great deal of discussion about the State of Michigan’s No-Fault policy, and how that impacts Detroit because so many people are not covered. There are many issues to be considered, but it definitely makes Detroit a more expensive place to live. In terms of House Insurance, I imagine it is more expensive than the suburbs, but I am not so sure about that one.
Soyk: I own a house in Detroit on Falcon street by Woodmere Cemetery, and I cannot afford to insure for fire protection because the premiums are so high. I have liability insurance, but fire insurance for my rental property costs more than my yearly premium for my home in Lincoln Park.
Grunow: It is an issue that many people have to deal with unfortunately.
Soyk: How does race play a factor with commercial development in the City of Detroit?
Grunow: That is a tough question. Race is a big issue in the city, and there has been a lot of talk about terms such as Equitable Development, and Inclusive Development. Basically, recognizing people of color especially African American people that have made up a large part of the city’s population have been locked out of opportunity. There is a lot of truth in that considering there has been decades of red lining in the city that prohibited people of race to live or acquire mortgages. Large areas of black-owned businesses suffered, such as Paradise Valley, that were targeted because of the freeways. All of those businesses that had established themselves and become somewhat successful were forced to move without having somewhere else to go. Many businesses had to start over repeatedly, and that becomes a huge issue of racism. That population is excluded from receiving resources to grow. It has historically been a huge issue, and it continues to be because of that still playing out.
Soyk: Can you give some examples of that?
Grunow: People who are applying for mortgages are still disproportionally given to white people over black people. With recent changes that are supposed to prevent that it is still shown that mortgages are disproportionally not given to people of color. If someone is trying to buy a home in Detroit or finance a small business loan there is a lot of research on how African Americans do not have the same kind of access to monetary resources to start a business. Their own family wealth has not grown in the same way and their friends and family do not necessarily have the money to provide for that little store front business. It is still quite a factor, and unfortunately still a big issue. There are some programs that try to address that and people working on that. People like Chase Cantrell who is doing really interesting work, and with an organization called Building Community Value he is a real estate attorney trying to identify, help, and train the next generation of developers in Detroit. Cantrell focuses on people of color to give them the tools in a way that is focused for them to be successful.
Soyk: Do you believe the same issues that happened with Black Bottom and Paradise Valley are happening today? For example, the area around the Marathon Plant and an area called Delray where the federal government is building a bridge to Canada?
Grunow: There are some neighborhoods around Delray, the I-75 corridor in the zip code 48217, that have been studied to have the most polluted air in the country. That zip code has a reputation because of Marathon and other refineries in the area along with manufacturing of steel and salt. Some of the communities are African American as well as Latino, and there is a large Arab American population. All of these groups of people have been disproportionally affected by the industrial waste from manufacturing. Two or three years ago there was a large concern of dumping of coke (a by-product of manufacturing steel) piles along the waterfront that were not contained properly. There were no coverings on the piles so hazardous dust was inhaled in people’s lungs in the area causing health problems. That is a really important part of the story.
Soyk: Everyone I knew from that area suffered with respiratory illness such as asthma, lung cancer, and emphysema. When I, personally, lived in the area I suffered with sniffles most of the time.
Grunow: That is problem for a lot of people in that area.
Soyk: What are the negative effects of Gentrification? For example, people leaving neighborhoods empty or in disrepair?
Grunow: Do you mean land speculation that leads to Gentrification?
Soyk: What is being done or can be done to restore Detroit’s neighborhoods?
Grunow: You are asking good questions. Detroit’s population has declined significantly over the last fifty or sixty years. The peak of Detroit’s population was between the years 1955 and 1956. As a result of not having over a million people leaves lasting effects on infrastructure, building (construction), neighborhood continuity, and abandonment. It is impossible to overstate how devastating it has been not having people to maintain properties, to buy goods in local service areas, go to churches, and pay taxes. It is a vicious cycle, and the thing that is so traumatic about that is the people left behind have an obligation to take care of over twice as much responsibility that other people were taking care of collectively. It is not fair to the people that are left behind because they are saddled with those burdens, and their taxes tend to go up. Detroit has one of the highest tax rates in the State of Michigan. The city services are lacking manpower and resources to function effectively. It is very complicated how to effectively address this problem. Where should the city begin? Some say blight should be addressed first. The city should take care of properties that are falling down or in disrepair. Some properties need to be boarded up to show there is at least a sense of community concern, so property values do not plummet further. There is a scale down problem which is how the city cannot physically do that to all of the places that need to get done. The next question is: Does the city start in certain areas first? Who decides if there are enough people around this area? Maybe if we focus on this area the city can staunch the tide and get new investment, new residents, and maybe stabilize a neighborhood. The question that comes with that is the people that are in an area, that are not getting additional resources, are often left to their own devices with fewer city services. It is a double-edged sword to think that over time the city has been able to work some of these details out to some degree. The philanthropic community with large federal grants has focused on certain parts of the city, like the greater downtown or certain neighborhoods, where there have been some investments like the Livernois Corridor. It is messy and not one good answer for it. It is bound to not make everyone happy. Unfortunately, there are people who are going to be more hurt by activities even with best intentions and often those people are poor and have less ability to fend for themselves. It is a really hard question. I am hopeful about the city in the long run because I think the city has many things going for it. In part, the infrastructure is here and the amount of opportunity that people can take advantage of over time. Ultimately, it is more about bringing people back and bringing resources back. It is going to take a great deal of energy to push in that direction because the city has been in decline for so long.
Soyk: I would like to talk about politics, and La Marche du Nain Rouge. Especially when Kwame Kilpatrick was in office Nain Rouge was appointed for mayor?
Grunow: Oh yes, there is a thing called La Marche Du Nain Rouge that I started with some friends, and I am part of now. We use this character from Detroit’s origin. He is like a legend from the beginning of the city about this evil malevolent character who cursed the city after he had a heated dispute with Cadillac. We started Nain Rouge in 2010. We have various themes every year, and that year Nain Rouge ran for Emergency Manager because that was the event that was happening to the city.
Soyk: Has politics changed for the better with Mayor Duggan? Especially since city council changed to districts instead of ‘at large’?
Grunow: I think council by districts is a smart decision. Ultimately, it gives people a sense there is someone looking out for them from their neighborhood. Before that change city council was basically ‘at large’ which means council members were voted by name and popularity. I think it has changed for the better. We still need leaders who are able to commit to serving their constituents. There is always a need for new blood to step up and selflessly be serving the people. City council is just one part of government we had a mayor now for a few years who I do not necessarily agree with everything, but I think he has done a good job of especially bringing in data to the city. Data meant to track and hold his departments accountable. I think that is something we see to a degree. Mayor Duggan has done a good job in that aspect. Many of the council people I think have done a really good job representing their districts interests, and also working with the Mayor. We need more folks to step up, and there is always an opportunity for that.
Soyk: Can you talk about what you are working on lately?
Grunow: Now I am working with the city on a few projects. One of them is a planning study on the East Side called the Gratiot Seven Mile Framework Study. It is a big reimagining of that part of the city which has seen a great deal of disinvestment. That part of the city has a pot of money spent on some community designated ideas. We have been talking about should this go to streetscapes, or should this go to blight remediation? Should the money go to a recreational center? There is a lot of different ideas about how to use that money. I have a few city projects, but that is one of the things I am working on recently. I have a focus group earlier, and I have a focus group later today talking to neighbors in different parts of that area.
Conclusion Reading sources on the history of home ownership in Detroit taught me about the injustices and violence committed against the black community because of fear and hatred. City officials and white Homeownership Associations tried to keep black families confined to small areas of Detroit such as Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. Overcrowding, improper sanitation, and poorly kept buildings made these areas look like slums. Middle-class black families wanted to better their living conditions and sought residence in other areas of the city. The development of the freeways demolished Black Bottom and Paradise Valley. White residents organized into community organizations because they believed if African Americans moved into their (white residents) neighborhood that their property values would decrease causing them to lose their investment of their home. Black families trying to better their life was met by violence and intimidation. Factories and white residents moved out of the city of Detroit taking their revenue with them. Schools were forced to close. The pride of homeownership was replaced with renters or buying houses on land contract because mortgage companies were reluctant to lend money to potential homeowners in Detroit. Insurance companies considered Detroit high risk. Many houses were left abandoned because of tax foreclosures. Many abandoned houses were burned during the summer and Devil’s Night which is the night before Halloween. Crime increased in the city causing residents to put bars on their windows. The suburbs used zoning restrictions to keep their communities white.
I learned through the interviews, that we as a society are still facing the same issues that plagued the history of Detroit. Instead of separating by race people are separated by class and economic opportunity. Redlining and race is still an issue with lending institutions and insurance. Police brutality and violence is still an issue targeting the black community. There are community resources in place to offer help against foreclosures, but many people are unaware of these resources. People need to pull together in their community and watch out for one another. Demolition is not always the best solution. Many of Detroit’s neighborhoods seem to have intentionally been left to decay over the last thirty years. Developers buy the remaining properties for pennies on the dollar. Neighborhood reform and community involvement is the solution. Unfortunately, neighborhoods in Detroit need state and federal tax dollars to change the course of years of neglect.
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