Urban Homestead Act: Detroit

I just heard on the radio this morning that Detroit, in addition to being one of the most economically depressed cities in the nation, is the second emptiest, after the relatively prosperous Las Vegas, Nevada. In Vegas, it seems, they over anticipated growth and built too many homes. In Detroit, it’s just that over half the population left.

According to a recent reports, houses in downtown Detroit are presently selling for an average of $7K a piece. Several hundred, from what I’m told, can be had for under $1K. According to real estate agent Ian Mason, who recently spoke with CBS News, he’s recently sold foreclosed homes in the city for as little as one dollar.

According to the Detroit News, the 139-square-mile city, which was once home to over 2 million people, and now has fewer than half that number, may have as many as “60,000 to 80,000 abandoned businesses and homes.”

The state of Michigan is one of only two states in the union – the other being Rhode Island – currently losing population.

So, as I was sitting there in my car, listening to people talk about how dire the situation is in Detroit, I began to wonder if there might be an opportunity here. I began to wonder if maybe, with all the funds we’re talking about investing in ambitious programs, the federal government might be willing to sponsor something like a modern version of the Homestead Act.

For those of you new to the country, there was a piece of legislation signed into law in 1862 by President Lincoln that gave title to 160 acres to any man willing to venture beyond the original 13 colonies, clear the land, and make it hospitable to “civilized” life. The law was know as the Homestead Act, and, according to Wikipedia, under the law, within just four years, 1.6 million homesteads were granted, totaling near 10% of the United States. There were, of course, abuses and worse, especially as relates to Native Americans, but, all in all, I think it’s seen historically as a success – it filled the interior of the still new country.

And I’m not sure what urban homesteading would look like, and how exactly properties would be apportioned. I’m thinking, however, that there would be an application process, seeking people with certain proven skill sets. You would essentially give them a home and property for free, with the understanding that it will belong to them if they inhabit the property as their primary residence for some number of years, and improve whatever structures are standing on it, bringing them to code, etc. Maybe entire blocks are given to young architects, builders, farmers, co-housing developers, inventors, artists, etc.

Maybe there’s even an accompanying reality television show following the progress of these groups as they break soil. It could be a national test bed.

Detroit could be the laboratory for the future. Why not be ambitious with the stimulus money and try to build a sustainable modern city from the ruins of early city that had been written off? Even if we gave away the land, and provided people with a stipend of, say, $25K a year for three years, and access to 0% loans, I’m guessing that you’d still be able to pull it off for less than a small fraction of what we’re investing in the banking sector… I wonder if Levin and Stabenow ever allow themselves to think big, crazy, hopeful thoughts like this?

[The home shown above, located at 8111 Traverse Street, in Detroit, recently sold for $1.]

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  1. Posted February 25, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Or, we could just build a wall around Detroit and nurture it along till it’s Plissken-friendly.

  2. Bonnie
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    It’s been proposed, and it’s being done to certain extents in other cities. People are assembling parcels- buying up neighboring lots (sometimes these are called “blots”)- and Detroit actually has a program to encourage this- kind of. The problem with giving land away to architects, gardeners, etc is that there’s not a whole lot of contiguous land, even in the worst neighborhoods. This means that you’d have to take a house away from person A, a long-term resident, to give to person B, a newcomer. And then what guarantee do you have that the builders, etc, will stick around? Furthermore, very very few of the abandoned houses are worth rebuilding. They might be able to salvage some materials, but by and large, they were substandard when they were built, and not very well kept-up.

  3. Posted February 25, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Right, Bonnie. I know that some folks are doing it, and that these inexpensive houses in Detroit are selling. But I’m talking about something bigger, and more coordinated, where the federal government asks energetic, smart people with skills to move to Detroit, and pays them a stipend to do it… Admittedly, I haven’t fleshed the idea out to any great extent yet, but I like the idea of some huge coordinated movement to save Detroit.

  4. Oliva
    Posted February 25, 2009 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    While standing in the sunshine waiting to hear Obama and Gore at Cobo Hall last summer, we befriended a very cool young filmmaker who had helped garden one of Detroit’s public gardens, and then someone tested the soil and found it full of bad things, so they made their garden a model, couldn’t eat anything grown there. Not the brightest thought in this context, but when I saw the word “gardeners,” I thought of him and that garden. So, along with the architects and gardeners, maybe some soil testers and healers too?

    But along the gardening lines and more brightly, I had thought that all those unfinished subdivision homes in Canton might make good grow houses for medical marijuana (we would have ample supplies–maybe we could overtake California as medical marijuana suppliers). So, I read Mark’s post and thought, aha, maybe Detroit and not Canton.

    Hmmm, I fear my ideas are just not helpful tonight . . . but I do like Mark’s idea and can’t stop loving Detroit, so I’ll be thinking on it. (I was at the African-American Museum a couple weeks back–my, how it keeps growing and going despite everything. There’s a screening of Ntosake Shange’s wonderful “choreopoem,” now a film, For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf at the museum on 5 March at 7 p.m., followed by poetry by young local poets. FYI.)

  5. Posted February 26, 2009 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    “There were, of course, abuses and worse, especially as relates to Native Americans, but, all in all, I think it’s seen historically as a success – it filled the interior of the still new country.”

    You gloss over it. To marginalize the Natives was the whole point.

  6. Charlie G.
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    As a Detroit homeowner who lived in Ann Arbor for ten years and grew up in the suburbs – the situation in the City is complex. Thanks for bringing it up Mark.

    Personally, I think much of the problem lies in the geographic size of the city – its unreal. There is a graphic out there that shows you can plop Manhattan, Boston and San Fran within Detroit’s borders and still have tons of square miles leftover.

    So I think it may take something like a “smart re-growth” policy that combines really out of the box strategies that promote public transportation, homesteading, and greening of large swaths of land.

    There are several visionary ideas out there, on You-Tube and more formal plans form other planning/university types – I just googled and couldn’t find them. The challenge is not to make them too pie in the sky.

    The radical change that has to take place first is the regionalization of the SE Michigan public school systems. I believe in local control but DPS needs to be blown up and start over. The current system encourages the brighter and more well off students within Detroit to go into the inner run suburbs/charter schools leaving the poorest and hardest to serve in the neighborhoods. It’s segregation pre busing. If there was a larger system with no incentives to siphon off students for the revenue – and the larger system had decentralized clusters of local control for instructional sovereignty / localized accountability – resources couple by distributed more justly and efficiently.

    As for the city’s neighborhoods – a visionary leader has to come to sell the public that some of the most devastated neighborhoods have to left to go back to pasture – that the 3-5 folks still living in those blocks will be helped to move to more densely parts of the city – this will take some Big Brother stuff that well make the Libertarian in anyone puke. You could have large veins of green and farm land that than become incredible assets.

    But first, Detroit is on it’s death bed right now – the bleeding has to be stopped and heart beat restored. This will either happen through the actions of the next mayor or State takeover of Detroit like is going to happen with Pontiac just announced.

    On a personal note, we moved to the city in part to hopefully be part of the solution. Our jobs were here so that made things convenient, yes, and at the time, we bought a great foreclosed house that we’ve fixed up – but we bought at the top of the housing bubble so didn’t get the $1 or even the $7K deal.

    There are lots of pockets of grassroots change going on in the City from art to bike shops to the urban farming movement to nontraditional nonprofits – if that energy can be me with some sensible master public policy there may be hope.

  7. Paw
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    You’re missing one crucial thing – no one outside of Michigan gives a flying fuck about Detroit. I like the idea of directing a lot of funds and energy toward the city, and using it as a living laboratory, but other more powerful cities want the money more. There’s no one in Detroit that matters to politicians. They’d rather see it paved over.

  8. Oliva
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I know one other person outside of Michigan who really cares about Detroit. Too bad she’s just my friend and not someone with real power!

    A thing to keep in mind, according to the Pentagon’s climate change report and many other such reports, is that the country’s gonna run out of fresh water (in 15 years? some say), and, though only one Great Lake “belongs” to the United States (others are shared with Canada), it really could be that, despite winter, Detroit will be the place to live in time. And if things keep getting screwy and we become part of Canada, Detroit will be a southernmost spot and desirable.

  9. Charlie G.
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    I agree that Detroit has better longer term prospects because of access to water and land – maybe 50 to 100 years there will be rebirth if there is there is over population / access to water problems.

    While no one around the country cares about Detroit – this is true; but I think the same can be said most people in MICHIGAN don’t give a hoot about Detroit if you are outside of it.

    Michigan isn’t going anywhere unless the State invests in it’s largest City, IMHO.

  10. Ol' E Cross
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    I think it should happen; it’s hard to see how it could. With houses available for $1 there’s not much more you could do to attract folks, price wise.

    I agree with much of Charlie G.’s analysis. I think it would help if it were easier to buy larger tracts of contiguous land, but, at least when I lived there, there were many vacant properties clung to by suburban investors waiting to cash-in on some development deal.

  11. walter street
    Posted February 26, 2009 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been in ypsi for several years now and still love it, it’s a terrific little city. That said, I realize Detroit’s importance to the state if not the country and have been fascinated with it. Detroit is considered a city of “the past” but it can be the future too with enough effort.

    For better or worse, Michigan is Detroit and vice versa. ask an outsider and maybe they also know ann arbor or a handful of other cities but nothing significant. Detroit is still the 11th largest city in the US and has tons of talent (esp engineering and medical), lots of fresh water, beautiful architecture, top notch universities, and the nations unrivaled selection of white castle and coney islands. There has been tons of progress in and near downtown in the last decade but I know quite well that it is only scratching the surface.

    However, lots of places in the city have been and are improving to be quite livable places. Look at southwest detroit.. yes it may not look like farmington hills and you’ll even see the occasional burned out house but by and large it is densely populated with people who care about their neighborhood, city, and property. Corktown is looking great these days. There are tidy neighborhoods like warrendale on the west side that are at least stable and in many cases better off than a decade ago. On top of all these there are national historic districts of amazing architecture like palmer woods, indian village, english village, etc. Midtown and woodbridge have been filling up with lots of families and students with many houses and apartments being renovated in the last few years.

    This is definately a complicated issue though. It was mentioned that detroit is huge and that’s true. Some places in the city are mostly devestated often to the point where recovery in those areas would be improbable if not impossible. Delray is pretty much done for save for long time residents that will likely stay til the end. brightmoor is a warzone anymore and mostly full of cheaply made housing that probably won’t be saved. These are only a few examples but show the dilemma pretty clearly. While you might be able to offer incentives to have a few remaining residents relocate I’d hate to see an eminent domain nightmare (think poletown 1980s) I suppose if demand for housing exceeds what is already recovering it won’t be hard to find places for future renewal projects. Drive through (or check google maps) and see that much of the east side is already prairie and it’s not uncommon to see only 1 or 2 houses remaining on a block. I think this would be a good place to start. Although as preservationist it pains me to say but in some cases if these remaining houses are vacant and in dire condition they may be better off demolished to save on infrastructure costs (such as arson) If you want to make an omelet…..

    I won’t go on forever here. Detroit is a gem that deserves an effort to bring back to power. Our suburban addiction the last four decades has turned large swaths of SE mich to car dependant, anonymous areas with no identity and frankly not much of a future. These suburbs often are as fickle as fashion trends and new ones spread out like cancer to consume more land. This is largely the reason why I like ypsi so much; it’s old, small, has lots of charm (in my eyes at least) and has a definite sense of place thanks to EMU and the city’s history. The naysayers always come out of the woodwork on me but I maintain: Detroit has a definite future. The infrastructure and culture is well established and many research universities and startups have been thriving with new technology. It’s not an easy city to maintain faith in given the constant stream of bad news but I maintain. In a year or two I’m planning on moving there and helping to make it a great place to live and possibly work on a master’s at wayne state. Detroit is a canvas and it’s up to us a region to remake it into something better.

  12. Posted February 26, 2009 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    I agree, OEC, that free property by itself isn’t enough. That’s why I was suggesting a stipend of some kind… And I agree that there isn’t the political will to do anything like what I’m describing nationally. Dying towns don’t have good lobbyists. And our representatives in DC are just interested in staying in power. If anything is really going to happen, it has to be grassroots. We need a leader in Detroit that can convince people to move to the city and be a part of its rebirth.

  13. Posted February 27, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    There was an interesting exhibition that originated in Germany: Shrinking Cities. Something similar made it over to MOCAD last year. It called for managed shrinking of emptied out cities. I am normally not a fan of eminent domain but I would be in support if families could be relocated fairly. However, I do believe this strategy would have to originate and be embraced by the black community, otherwise Detroit would find itself in a similar predicament as it was on the eve of the 1967 riots.

    Imagine if we took half of the land “off the grid” securely and shut off all city services to these areas. Since the land generates virtually no tax revenue, the workers that are left can be allowed to focus on those areas of the city that are still viable.

    As for homesteading- I think introducing it in Detroit would be like the wild, wild west unless the homesteaders were absolutely devoted to their parcels. I love the idea though.

  14. Posted February 27, 2009 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I dont know if people know this but Detroit has the highest property tax rate in the State of Michigan as well as an income tax. Detroiters also pay a lot more in insurance, both home and auto. If the people in the state of Michigan wish to help Detroit, a really good start would be to do what it takes so that property taxes in urban areas are closer to the rates in surrounding suburbs and exurbs. It also wouldnt hurt to require automobile insurance companies to charge the same rates regardless of location.

  15. Posted March 2, 2009 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Great Post!! It wouldbe interesting to see how something like this would develop. Putting themoney directly into creative peoples hands and it’s a win win situation. The offshoot of businesses that will evolve around communities like this will also be sustainable. Interesting post

  16. Monique Shaney'
    Posted March 9, 2009 at 3:12 am | Permalink

    Detroit residents are being pushed out of the way so the city can be rebulit without them. The reason noone cares about Detroit is because it’s black. As a native of the city, who loves my home and dread the day it is more people from the UK living here than black people, I feel we should have the opportunity to purchase homes for $1 like they are. People from the UK are purchasing our homes a thousand at a time and when we ask for help, we are not told about this opportunity.

  17. Posted March 9, 2009 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Amen to that. Sending armies of white artists to push out the local poor minorities has been a tactic used for nearly 2 centuries.

    Fuck gentrification. Build on communities that already exist.

  18. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 9, 2009 at 8:55 am | Permalink


    Gentrification is a problem when the upper crust is overflowing into poorer areas. Happens in places like NYC. Detroit is emptying. It’s lost 97,308 (the residents since 2009. The current population is 853,962. SEMCOG estimates this will drop to 705,128. You could add 100,000 artists to the city and it’d only reach 2000 levels, when it was still half empty. The idea that armies of whites are pushing minorities out of the city is absurd.

  19. Posted March 9, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I got the impression that people and businesses desperate enough to put houses on the market for $1 don’t really care whether the buyer is from the UK, from Detroit, black, white, etc. They just want to unload it. When a house goes up for sale (especially at prices like this, where no loan is needed), everyone has an equal chance against it.

  20. Posted March 9, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    OEC, in the case of Detroit, you may be right. I doubt (know) that there are not armies of white people flowing into Detroit. However, I am always skeptical of programs that push “artists” rather than put money and infrastructure into a suffering community.

    “Artists” are usually the first step to pushing an unwanted poor minority out. Again, I doubt that this is the case in Detroit, but I do wish that leaders would address important and basic issues like the lack of a grocery store in Detroit rather than worrying about the plight of a bunch of young white kids.

  21. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 9, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    When we lived in Detroit, having to drive across the border to buy groceries in the suburbs was angering (as the stores just lined the borders on the other side of the street). Eventually, University Foods did open (near WSU) which is a pretty decent store.

    Detroit has been (not sure if this is still true with the recent drops) the city with the largest population of black folk in the nation. Monique’s comment above echos a sentiment I’ve heard from many over the years. There is a resistance, among some in the community, against whites and non-black minorities moving into predominantly black neighborhoods. This resistance is entirely understandable. Blacks have been mistreated in white communities for decades. Why would they want to see a historically abusive, dominant culture move in and import white, suburban values?

    I think you’re right to be skeptical of these programs, but Detroit, given its immense size, simply cannot exist as a monocultural city. Frankly, there aren’t enough black families in the region (there’s just over 1 million from Port Huron to Monroe) to populate the city to a fiscally sound level where schools and infrastructure can be well funded and business attracted. It needs a massive influx of multiple cultures and lifestyles. It has to, once again, become integrated city to succeed. It needs people. Lots and lots of people of every size, shape and color. Detroit has plenty of room for them all.

    All that said, home ownership is the biggest protection there is against gentrification. You can’t push homeowners out with higher rents, and you can’t push them out (in this state) with higher taxes. This would be an ideal time for a program designed to help renters in the city become homeowners.

  22. Posted March 9, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I agree with everything Ol E Cross has said above.

    Dude, there are grocery stores in the City of Detroit although there are certainly too few of them

  23. Posted March 9, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    There are markets in Detroit but no large supermarkets. Yes, you will say that is a good thing, but most people shop at large supermarkets because they are cheap and sell something besides expired potato chips and Spaghetti-O’s.

  24. Posted March 9, 2009 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    That isn’t true, dude. I know this because just recently I was hanging out with a friend of mine who was bitching about the quality of the large “Save-a-Lot” supermarket near her house. She lives in the city of Detroit. She said that she doesnt have a problem buying prepackaged foods there but thinks that the produce isnt as fresh as what one finds outside of the city (although, of course, one can go to Eastern Market in the city and get some of the best produce in the state).

    At any rate, yes – more large supermarkets would be a good thing and if those supermarkets also happened to have really high quality food, it would also be a good thing.

  25. Posted March 9, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    That’s great that a Save-a-Lot has opened up. However, I doubt that it can accommodate the needs of more than 800,000 people. Ypsi/Ann Arbor at less than 1/4 the population of Detroit, has at least 6 large supermarkets that I can name off the top of my head.

    The lack of grocery stores in Detroit is a serious issue, as it is in many poor areas.

  26. Posted March 9, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Since you don’t believe me. Arguably, many of these of are from 2007, but I doubt that much has changed. There are a lot of factors that keep grocery stores out of a city like Detroit. It’s up to policy makers to fix it. You will all say that they should just grow it themselves and let artists order domino’s pizza for everyone, but that’s not a realistic solution to the greater problem.






  27. Posted March 9, 2009 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I only was correcting your statement that there are NO grocery stores in the city of Detroit. I did not question the notion that there are too few or that some more might be nice. I suspect that if your goal is to get grocery stores to move into the city, getting artists to move first might not hurt. A little gentrification of some areas of Detroit wont hurt and would attract businesses (such as grocery stores) into the city.

  28. Posted March 9, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry, it’s a personal beef. I get sick of seeing people expend tons of energy into artists as a means to fix a city’s problems when they could put that energy into something constructive.

    At the end of the day, it has nothing to do with the city or the people who live there. It’s all about making a few well to do white people feel good about themselves.

    Like I said, it’s personal.

  29. Oliva
    Posted March 9, 2009 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    “Sending armies of white artists”–but they’re not all white, not at all. Did I miss something?

  30. Posted March 9, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    They could be white on the inside.

  31. Posted March 14, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    I have been thinking much the same thing about Detroit, as you can see on my blog , with the exception that at $1 or $7,000, people should be able to buy their own, not need subsidization. It could be a fantastic opportunity, if enough people went, and actually if you think about it actually matches the longer term migration patterns north as the globe heats up.

    Still, make no mistake, homesteading is HARD WORK. It was no picnic in 1862 and it would be no picnic in Detroit for awhile. With only 33% population left it’s not like there are jobs or much to do. As people settled they would create small businesses of course, things needed for the “settlers” like hairdressers, etc. But for the first few years people would have to be very independent, raising chickens, having a little garden (for food, not for fun), and learning to get through winters independently, without reliance on infrastructure. Make no mistake, in an abandoned city, there aren’t gobs of people running the utilities either, so it’s pretty much each person or family on their own — until a “new community” forms. At that point, frankly, I think Detroit could benefit from a new name, New Detroit perhaps.

    Anyway, for just a bit of cold reality, take a look at this site, Shrinking Cities:


    Detroit has been shrinking for 50 years. It has had periodic attempts at flowering, but the general trend has still been downward. It’s also not the only city like this in the world surprisingly.

    In dire times like this, an opportunity like Detroit is immense. It could totally turn around this time, if enough people with pluck and grit decided to go give it a try.

    In terms of weathering winters, I would offer this key — kachelofens. A kachelofen is an amazing masonry stove, which has been used in Austria, Russia, and Scandanavia for centuries. Mark Twain believed Americans were idiots not to utilize or build them more. http://www.kachelofen-usa.com/twain.htm

    Kachelofens are clean, super efficient, healthy, don’t need frequent cleaning, safe, are just warm to the touch but radiate all day, and simply burn one small armful of wood, including scrap wood or branches/undergrowth, per day.

    The deal is they cost +/- $10,000 and not that many people build them. So you would have to budget the money and plan ahead. But getting, say, a $10,000 house, building a $10,000 kachelofen, and putting $10,000 more into making the house habitable…. means total budget $30,000 — and then a whole bunch of work keeping yourself fed for at least three years (to be safe, until community takes root).

    Not so undoable. I hope people get inspired!

  32. Posted March 14, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I scanned through the previous comments also. On the race issue and the mistreatment of blacks, I won’t argue history. But if you simply look at conditions today, is it so much “less” mistreatment to be living in a dead city without jobs or opportunities? The flowering of New Detroit won’t happen unless it is future-looking, not back.

    On the tax issue, maybe the incentive for “settlers” is simply a moratorium on property taxes for the first three years, then a discount on property taxs for the next 20 years according to a fixed schedule. A homesteader should really BE a homesteader — it’s a sweat equity deal. And the adminstration of Detroit needs to change anyway. They also need to sell themselves to the settlers — offer actual value and services, not just be the same old entitled machine soaking up funds and giving very little back. A +/- 20 year time frame of only slowly increasing funds would allow there to be time for true, substantial change in the way the city is run. No glut (stimulating greed), and no starvation (stimulating fear). It would reduce anxiety enough for the administration to do better.

  33. Posted March 14, 2009 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the note on kachelofens. I’m going to check them out right now.

  34. Posted March 14, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    On kachelofens, you have to dig. They are not common in the US. I collected some good links somewhere after spending a few hours researching. I’ll see if I can find them.

  35. applejack
    Posted March 25, 2009 at 6:34 pm | Permalink


    Interesting new article in Slate called Homesteaders in the Hood. It talks about squatters rights and how in past times of hardship anti-squatting enforcement were reduced to help people out and rebuild empty communities. The article doesn’t mention Detroit in particular, but Slate also has a nice photo essay up about the Beautiful Ruins of Detroit: http://www.slate.com/id/2213696/

  36. Posted March 25, 2009 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Cool. Thanks for the link, AJ.

  37. Tracy
    Posted June 17, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    I am looking at going back to school as a “re-entry” or “non-traditional” student. It has crossed my mind that I could buy a house in Detroit for less than what I’d pay for 2 semesters’ worth of dorm space at most schools. $25k for house and tuition the first year (while I establish residency), $8k for tuition and property tax the rest of the years, I’d graduate with little or no student loan debt.

    I know the popular urban planning concept is to move people towards density, but if you tore down every *other* house, you would leave room for people to garden. A ring of semi-dense garden homes around the perimeter of the city would go a long way to bring fresh, local food to the community – and if fuel costs skyrocket, local food and local water are essential for any city to thrive.

    There is an opportunity – likely to be squandered, if history is any guide – to use this crisis to create tremendously positive urban-planning results. Create a vacant-home map, connect the dots into an intelligent commute pattern, and hire a local company to salvage the houses that will be bulldozed. That commute corridor can eventually become a transit corridor. Sell the salvaged hardwood floors, mantles, doors, etc. to people revitalizing other areas. Go back to the map, find homestead-farm-sized clusters, and post them on a website so buyers know about them. Reduce density from the outer perimeter, working in, and provide ez-zoning incentives for businesses that produce goods, extra incentives for export goods.

    And then launch a public-opinion campaign in public schools, focusing on the positive self-esteem derived from hard work, productivity, and accomplishment. Use business-owners as examples, train teachers in the critical skills students will need to succeed (a good work ethic will trump good spelling in most jobs), and encourage (legal) entrepreneurship. And I am sorry to say, you have to get rid of the teachers who teach victimization. When a student sees a big house, the teacher should point out the hard work and productivity that went into it, not the exploitation the teacher *thinks* went into it, because believing oneself exploited is not a skill employers look for – believing oneself capable of working hard and producing enough to buy one’s *own* big house puts the student on a path to succeed and *not* be exploited.

  38. delta tango
    Posted July 16, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I was born at Henry Ford Hospital, and spent my formative years in Michigan. My husband and I are ex-military, and have several practical skills. He is a diesel heavy vehicle mechanic with the ability to operate equipment as well, and upon separation from the military after 13 years, he re-trained as a carpenter, doing frame, finish, and fine carpentry. He has worked professionally for the past 15 years in both commercial and residential carpentry. He knows plumbing, home electrical work, and has the know-how to build a solid, well-built house from the ground up. I am a master naturalist, I have raised livestock for most of my life, I am an organic gardener with interest in restoring soil tilth, and I am an excellent baker and cook. (I held a tech position with the military.) In the community where I currently live, I did all the groundwork to get a local farmers’ market up and running. I have a child who is an artist, as well as a computer repair tech, and web developer. Another who is studying towards becoming a physical therapist, and the third hopes to become a welder. We have volunteered many many hours to the communities in which we’ve lived.

    But to read this column, our family would not be welcome nor wanted in Detroit because we’re the wrong skin color. Keep on teaching black children how vicitmized they’ve been instead of stressing what’s good in their lives and how to make things better. Keep on treating individuals of other races hatefully when they’ve actually done nothing wrong to you personally. Acting like the city’s culture is that of ugly bigotry will only doom it. If Detroit is insistent on being monocultural instead of welcoming people who want to invest in their community, please don’t harp about the city dying. I am SO tired of hearing people scream “racism” and then having to endure hateful, rude, threatening racist attitudes and treatment from them. Two wrongs don’t make a right. If Detroit is to survive and thrive, it must welcome, with open arms and hearts ALL who wish to see and work for a rebirth of a once great city.

    If whites and other races are not welcome nor wanted, in my estimation, the citizens of Detroit will get what they deserve. Viva Liberia!

  39. T bone
    Posted July 17, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Welcome to Detroit.


  40. gregb
    Posted November 4, 2010 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    I’ve recently read the full length of the dialogue regarding Detroit. In my view the solution to bringing Detroit back from the brink is immigration. Forget trying to entice Americans to move to Detroit from some other part of the US. The Detroit brand is just too tarnished to effectively make that sale.

    Before the conversation even starts however Detroit needs to drop the inherently pro black racism, and the job killing union grip on power. Detroit will continue to deteriorate as long as everyone knows that if you are not black, you are not welcome.

    Unions exist to take care of their own at the expense of all outsiders. Why should someone move or start their business in Detroit. Unions serve to make the costs higher and the risks greater to any business enterprise. In this regard unions have served to destroy any market in which they have significant control. They have destroyed Michigan and are working very hard to do the same to California.

    You can make any pro union argument you want. In this age of global competition unions do not deliver enough benefit to overcome the extra cost. Say what you want about protecting the worker. The worker first needs a job to protect.

    What Detroit leadership should do is to make Detroit an attractive location for immigrants from other countries. Some type of homestead charter should definitely be put in place. Work a deal with the Federal government to create a special immigration classification to allow people who are willing to “homestead” in Detroit an accelerated path to citizen status. Overnight Detroit would become the highest growth city in America.

    The next step in the process would be to declare Detroit an enterprise zone that is union free. This would allow immigrants to start their businesses without the added risk of union threats.

    Make Detroit the most accessible doorway to the American Dream. Millions of people around the world would respond.

    Instead of union

  41. Knox
    Posted November 5, 2010 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    I don’t know about unions and pro-black racism, but I agree that we should work to increase the number if immigrants moving to Detroit. If I’m not mistaken, our newly elected governor, before running, was involved in some kind of advocacy group focused on making it easier for high tech workers from abroad to settle in Michigan. Perhaps he would be up for such an idea.

  42. Bill Sayo
    Posted November 26, 2010 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Public Act 127


  43. J Walker
    Posted January 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Most of this discussion probably occurred in a similar context more than a decade ago hence the Public Act 127 referenced above. Now the question is what are the barriers that are preventing this bill from taking ahold in a meaningful way? Theoretically, there is nothing stopping Michigan from promoting this policy and actively recruiting immigrants through a media campaign (think Pure Michigan for immigrants looking for a new home and work). However, it is apparent that there is a lack of political will to do so otherwise this discussion wouldn’t have developed as it did over the last year through the comments on this page. The comments are very insightful and offer a full spectrum of the debate that exists in working to effectively transition Detroit into a viable 21st century city. I think the obvious answer is to look towards Grassroots campaigns promoting local business as well as SBTDCs that help startup entrepreneurs. Another avenue for moving Detroit forward are economic development corporations throughout the state. To date, there is almost no direct initiative to attract immigrant population. This is probably due to the fact that it is a highly charged issue (think Arizona immigration debate as of late). However, the power of the people to demand some change is obtainable. No doubt there would be controversy in a state welcoming immigrants as it has proven political suicide for politicians to do so since the country’s inception (the human condition). However, every serious study conducted on the Cost/Benefit Analysis of Immigration shows a heavy weight on the Benefit side. I can’t think of the specific studies at this moment but I will find them and post them here when I do.

    Another topic that was mentioned a couple times in the comments above is the issue of the sheer size of Detroit. The answer here is yet another politically risky issue of “Right-Sizing” Detroit. This means shrinking the city to a size by acknowledging the fact that it’s current size is unsustainable in the foreseeable future. What this means in a practical sense is that some residents living in the only house on a block need to move. We have to get past the idea that moving people is Big Brother. As far as the libertarian argument against evicting people from their homes, it’s a mute point for one simple reason: These houses are occupied because the city is paying immense utility costs to keep them heated, lit, and water in their plumbing. It simply can’t afford to do this any longer. People need to wake up to the fact that times are a-changing and that means people have to leave their stubbornness at the door and be willing to make some sacrifices for the good of the entire community. It’s not some abstract threat anymore when people talk about the United States falling behind other countries in the world in economic terms. The fact is America is not going to be number one in only a couple of years (CHINA!!) and will be followed by a litany of other countries that have positioned themselves better the U.S. over the past couple of decades (The Atlantic had an entire cover story devoted to this idea about a year ago.) With that in mind it becomes a question of survival. The quality of life that we now enjoy as Americans in the 21st century is utterly ridiculous (in a good way) in historical terms. What this means is that we need to take ourselves out of our microcosm paradigm and start to make changes that will position us for the next 100 years. Racial tensions are understandable but ridiculous to harp on because, as greg g says, it’s irrelevant to the issue of bettering Detroit. Big Picture is now the main concern. How do we stop Detroit from it’s downward spiral path towards destitution. We can’t rely on the Federal government because policy changes to frequently to base our future on them. The answer is taking emotions out of this highly charged debate and having a real discussion on what it would mean for Detroit if we continue doing business as usual. I think we all understand that currently the city is broken, now it just takes a small leap to ask for meaningful change. This is always the easiest part because change is not easy and without fail it means that people’s current interests (monetary, political, etc.) may be in jeopardy. If you want a quick wake up call on why after decades of decline things don’t seem much better for the city think of people like Matt Moroun who literally claimed that he was granted a “legal monopoly” by the city when he obtained the rights to the international bridge in 1979. Now he is blocking the building of a new bridge because it threatens one of his biggest revenue streams. These are the type of people who are opposing any real change in the state. They don’t care about anything but the bottom line, even if it’s at the city’s, and ultimately, their own peril. Break away from the constant disinformation you are fed on a constant basis and use a little common sense to understand the root problems of the city and the very real and drastic changes we need to be prepared to make if we don’t want to fall into a permanent brain drain state.

    I’ve mentioned a lot of very nuanced and complex issues in passing here and I encourage people to do some investigating for themselves. The information is out there one needs to see what needs to be done, but it gets lost in the disproportionally large amount of trash powerful people pass on to confuse the public into disarray and ultimately inaction (or ineffective action). I’ll leave with one idea: realize that real and meaningful change always seems improbable before it occurs and only afterwards is it obvious that without the change things would be worse then ever.

  44. Posted March 9, 2011 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    So, we have a problem. City governments and infrastructures are built to support high density areas. Massive watermains which were built for 100,000 paying households are unsustainable when they are forced to support 10,000 paying households. The same is true when you look at sewers, highways or police forces. Now, one solution to this problem is to take the people in the less dense areas and move them into more dense areas, where the city can serve them more efficiently. This is a real solution, but I find the invasion and destruction of citizens’ castles by government to be highly distasteful and only appropriate in the most desperate circumstances (such as war). Government is to protect citizens and their property, not destroy it.

    As an alternative, I suggest that the cities instead take some of the money that they would have spent maintaining existing infrastructure, and use it to help the residents transition to rural infrastructure. At some point, it becomes cheaper to drill wells for each remaining household than to continue maintaining the water distribution network. The same goes for installing septic systems. So, my recommendation is that the city water and sewer departments set up a voucher system for residents who declare their intention to live in their homes for a minimum number of years. The city’s legal team can then inform the citizens of the Adverse Possession law in the area so that the citizens can learn how to start using land which was formerly owned by their neighbors. Once it has been determined that an area has a sufficient amount of rural infrastructure, the city can then revert jurisdiction of the area to the county. The city will be happy, because it will no longer need to spread its resources across a wide area. The county will be happy, because its tax base will go up. The people who decide to stay will be happy, because their larger infrastructure changes will have been paid for. Any way you look at it, I do not think that it is necessary to remove residents when it is the city boundaries that need to shrink.

  45. Angela
    Posted February 10, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    This is an incredible idea.

  46. Mel
    Posted April 15, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    It’s a great idea, but there’s no money in it for the wealthy. No, we’ll take the land and hand it over to developers instead.

  47. One Love
    Posted April 26, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Great idea, but it’ll never work. The men in charge would rather give the whole thing to developers who give big campaign contributions, and promise to build casinos, for profit prisons and charter schools.

  48. Posted July 21, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Use a modern Urban Homestead Act to empower individuals to earn property with their personal commitment and labor, without needing any capital! Lower income and even middle class people can’t get a mortgage or small business loan these days to invest in decayed property, and who wants to assume that kind of risk, anyway? If an individual develops abandoned land, they should earn the right to own it free and clear of debt. Protecting ordinary people from corporate or even government exploitation would be essential. To empower individuals, as opposed to corporations, there would need to be a time period where the settler/property earner could not sell or lease the property. I think of what happened during Mexico’s transfer of land from the wealthy landowners to the peasants who worked the land. Their experience could inform our development of a modern version. I’d love to see a huge transformation of inner city decay using an Urban Homestead Act. The decay of any American city should be of concern to all Americans, but the solutions need to be local, just as the failures were local.

  49. Posted July 21, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    @jvangeld, Yours is an awesome thought, an excellent solution! And it works hand in hand with urban homesteading. I think they should also chang zoning laws and building codes to allow Urban Homestead Act residences to begin to be habitable before the settler has enough capital to finish out the home. Part of what made the original Homestead Act successful is that people could be a temporary home very cheaply (at that time it might be a sod house, or a log cabin, with the very cheapest plumbing — outhouses, and cheap roofing – sod or a tarp for example). Then when they got more capital to invest, they would upgrade by adding a permanent roof, siding the log house, installing plumbing, and – when rural electrification was available – adding electricity and electric appliances. Nowadays, government assistance might be made available for the septic systems, basic electric work, and roof to make the residence safe and habitable for modern Americans. When some of my ancestors were American settlers, temporary hardship was sometimes the only way to move up out of poverty or succeed as refugees in a new country. Government social programs aren’t very successful in helping people be independent, enjoying the pride and dignity that comes with that position. An Urban Homestead Act can provide opportunities to work one’s way to success just as it did in the America of the past. When African Americans gained freedom from enslavement, a homesteading opportunity should have been made available to them to help them get a start in participating in America’s economy on par with European Americans. It’s not too late, now, to give that same opportunity to groups of people who have no effective access to capital.

  50. FP
    Posted July 18, 2015 at 4:05 am | Permalink

    I would rather die like a man in Detroit than like a sad an fearful little douche in Portland.

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Let’s stop the murder, Detroit on August 25, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    […] the effects of middle class flight, and put families on the ground in the inner city. I proposed an Urban Homestead Act, under which families from elsewhere would be given land, with the understanding that they live […]

  2. By Homesteading in Dayton, Ohio on December 7, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    […] remember telling J. at one point that we should totally go out and “homestead” in Detroit, where if you call the police there’s a good chance they won’t come and if your […]

  3. By No Robocop for Detroit on February 8, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    […] downtown homes dirt cheap to Detroit police officers and firefighters, which is something that we’ve discussed here in the past. Hopefully people take him up on the offer. This entry was posted in Detroit, Uncategorized and […]

  4. […] now thy’ll finally take my idea for an urban homestead act […]

  5. […] few years ago, I proposed the passage of an Urban Homestead Act that would incentivize people with skills to move into Detroit. Here’s a clip from that post: […]

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