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In Case You Missed It: Growing and Retaining Detroit’s African American Middle Class


Detroit Future City’s (DFC) Center for Equity, Engagement, and Research
recently hosted a conversation about the growth of Detroit’s African American middle class as an indicator of economic equity. Detroit Future City’s director of the Center for Equity, Engagement, and Research, Ashley Williams Clark, shared the latest data on the state of the city’s middle class before a panel of experts shared why this metric is important and potential solutions to improve this critical sector of society and the economy. With data from DFC’s State of Economic Equity in Detroit Report, Clark provided context around Detroit’s population changes in recent years and what it means to be a middle class neighborhood.

In 2010, 82% of Detroit’s population was Black, in comparison to 77% in 2019. Considering that population loss, the majority of Metro Detroit’s Black middle class households now live in the suburbs, up from 28% in 2000 to 54% in 2017.

How are middle class neighborhoods classified? A middle class neighborhood is one with more than 50% of the households being middle or upper-middle class. A near-middle class neighborhood has 30 to 50% of households that are middle or upper-middle class. Detroit went from having 22 middle class neighborhoods in 2010 to just 11 in 2019. In 2010, there were also 133 near middle class neighborhoods. By 2019, 79 of those declined out of that classification, and only four became middle class neighborhoods. At that time, only 4% of African Americans in Detroit lived in middle class neighborhoods.

A panel moderated by Catherine Kelly, managing editor and director of Bridge Detroit, featured Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of Greater Chatham Initiative; Christopher Johnson, president of the Bagley Community Council; Annie Millie, executive director of Live Baltimore; and Sherita Smith, vice president of community development at Cinnaire.

The Black Middle Class as an Economic Engine

The conversation focused heavily on the importance of Black culture and communities nationwide, and how these sectors are “economic engines.” The speakers shared best practices for how to better meet the needs of Black communities and improve systems to reduce barriers to them becoming thriving, middle class communities.

“Our goal is to make our neighborhoods ones of opportunity and choice,” said Fears.

To help support the growth of Detroit’s Black middle class and nudge communities over the tipping point into the middle class, Smith shared the need to close the city’s racial wealth gap, create pathways to homeownership, offer career exploration, and provide funding and mentorship to women and BIPOC creators. Johnson also emphasized the importance of strong block clubs and ensuring that growth that happens in the city is reflective and inclusive of the African American community. Based on her experience with similar issues in Baltimore, Millie noted that advocacy for population growth is key and that leaders need to encourage recruitment and retainment of residents to home buying assistance and strong school resources.

Shifting Narratives, and Better Understanding Black Communities’ Needs

Using Detroit’s Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood as an example, Smith outlined some neighborhood stabilization services that support the prosperity of communities. She shared that access to affordable housing across income levels, property tax reform, engagement with residents to maintain quality of life, and proximity to amenities like shopping, basic services, and multimodal public transportation is key to equitable growth.

In Chatham, Fears cited marketing and surveying current and potential residents as effective tactics. She shared that getting to know their needs better reveals solutions. For instance, supporting market-rate housing that is attractive and conducive to young adults’ lifestyles or that is ADA-compliant for senior residents, would be reparative. The community needs housing stock that mirrors residents’ lifestyles.

Millie also shared a narrative shift that helped Baltimore chart a better course to growing its middle class that could benefit Detroit as well.

“The dominant narrative really has been – continued to be – about white flight. That somehow our population decline was being driven by loss of white residents when really that was not the case,” said Millie. “At Live Baltimore, when we were developing our strategic plan in 2017, that was the first time that we were really intentional and explicit about calling out the loss of Black residents as the primary population issue that needs to be addressed.”

That shift in focus has helped by acknowledging that Black housing consumers are a unique, important audience. More work is being done to determine what motivates that audience. For example, priorities shared by Black homebuyers were affordability and proximity to friends and family – being part of a community – and housing stock with larger homes to accommodate larger families. Understanding that helped target marketing and resources to better serve those communities.

Investing in People or Institutions and What Will Generate Reparative Progress

“Investment into people is the key,” said Johnson. “Investment in people, in education, in helping them get over these hurdles is what’s going to help.”

Fears, on the other hand, shared that it needs to be a combination of both investments in people and institutions because instructions being accountable is key to addressing and eliminating structural racism that is embedded in these institutions that are discriminatory.

“We have to find ways to interrupt generational poverty, and that really begins with education and income,” said Smith. “If we’re going to move Detroit in a way that is sustainable and have a sustainable recovery, we’ve got to find ways to grow the middle class – not just by bringing our folks back from the suburbs, but also help people move, economically, that are here.”

Lastly, the speakers shared their takes on programs that would create reparative progress. Smith cited connecting residents to living-wage employment, having great schools in every community, and lowering property taxes. Millie said tax policy parity is needed; the federal government subsidized the move of the white population out of these cities that led to devastatingly high property taxes. Johnson cited improved public safety and legislative reform for car insurance and property tax rates, while Fears suggested focusing on the key demographic of Black women and supporting them and their essential contributions to communities and economies.