Detroit City Council’s new term starts next month and the mostly fresh crop of lawmakers plan to take aim at some systemic problems: affordable housing, cannabis equity, water infrastructure and commercial corridor deterioration.
How different this council is from the last when it comes to policy changes that impact businesses and residents remains to be seen. Expectations, apathy and opportunity are piled on this group of three incumbents and six newcomers.
For some it’s tense and uncertain, with an FBI investigation into corruption yet to be wrapped up, council members Gabe Leland and André Spivey resigning this year over guilty pleas for bribes and another two having their homes searched.
The relationship between newly re-elected Mayor Mike Duggan and the new council is also yet to be defined, as well as the exact to-do list of the executive and legislative branches.
“With every new term and with every new council person, there’s an opportunity to make a difference,” said Karen Dumas, a Detroit communications professional and media contributor who was Mayor Dave Bing’s communications officer. “But the reality is, politics are always at play. And there’s a process at play that can be counterproductive to those members that really want to come to the table and make change.”
Years of broken promises and big talk that doesn’t lead to action have “tempered” some Detroiters’ expectations for the legislative body, Dumas added.
“I want to say my expectations will be shattered,” she said. “… I’m hoping that because the new council members are coming in with a respectable level of community commitment and awareness of the valuable role that the businesses play in the city’s revitalization, so I’m really hoping that they will come in and be able to effectively balance that and that what they say will be reflected in their votes.”
Greg Bowens, a local public relations professional, activist and former journalist, said he’s watched over the years as Detroit City Council has lost some of its prominence in the community.
“The gravity of the situation for the city of Detroit, in particular, and cities in general as we struggle through a pandemic and grapple with income inequities … you would think that the voices of council members as it relates to those kinds of issues would be even louder and have greater reach, and yet the problems persist,” Bowens said.
New District 6 council member Gabriela Santiago-Romero said she staunchly believes change is coming.
“We are not the same council,” she said.
Re-elected member James Tate also said he’s expecting some big improvements for Detroiters with his new colleagues. But he also feels the media attention to the grandness of the council turnover is overblown.
“When I came in, in my first term in 2010, it was five of us (who were new to council),” he said. “It’s not uncommon. This is a very highly stressful job … 24 hours a day, this is what you do.”
Crain’s took a look at what the lawmakers want to accomplish in those hectic days.
Re-elected members Scott Benson and Mary Sheffield, who was president pro tem last term, did not respond to requests for interviews for this report. Neither did District 2’s new council member, Angela Whitfield-Calloway. New at-large member Mary Waters, a former state lawmaker, declined Crain’s interview request.
Here’s a sample from five members:
“Obviously, our first priority coming onto council is just the deliverable of services and resources to my district,” said Durhal, a former state representative.
In the first three months, Durhal plans to open one or two offices in his district. He also wants to host two separate meetings to garner input on priorities for the district: one with block clubs, community associations and other resident groups, and the other with business owners. He then wants to combine them for a larger roundtable “creating some type of cohesion.”
Policy-wise, Durhal wants to bring more affordable housing to his district, get jobs for people returning from prison and potentially create a task force to address property tax overassessment, which has led to or exacerbated financial strife for many Detroiters.
Durhal wants to use his ties to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, where he was community liaison before being elected to council, to bridge the gap between the city’s housing department and the state’s for solutions to Detroit’s lack of housing options Detroiters can afford.
District 7 is ripe for economic development, he said, adding that he wants to build up commercial corridors on Warren Avenue, Joy Road, Plymouth Road and/or others with small businesses that create jobs for people in their neighborhood.
“And that will help with the neighborhood (residential) stabilization aspect,” he said.
Johnson, who founded MECCA Development Corp. on the east side, wants to spend her first 90 days shaping her office’s vision and one big priority will be water infrastructure.
Areas of District 4, such as Jefferson Chalmers, have been hit hard by basement water backups and flooding. An increasingly large portion of home and commercial property owners in the area must also buy pricey flood insurance under recent Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain map updates.
“That’s something we have to start wrapping our minds around on how to address that situation regionally so we don’t continue to have communities … face this problem,” Johnson said. “I believe, quite honestly, that we could soon start to see properties or families being displaced as a result of this issue.”
She also said she wants to look not just at increasing the amount of affordable housing in Detroit, but at building affordable single-family housing stock for areas without many multi-family options.
Johnson also pointed to environmental violations at the Stellantis plant on the east side, saying the Community Benefits Ordinance process there was likely not enough.
“I just want to make sure we consider our residents first and foremost … so if we can have some real discussions before everything starts to be developed, it would be more beneficial not only for the residents in the community but also for the developer … because when residents feel like they have listened, they’ve been good stewards, then it all works out well when they support one another,” she said.
Johnson also wants to target commercial blight that affects the residential areas around it, and said she plans to propose rules strengthening the city’s nuisance abatement processes.
“So, really working to pull those properties into the right hands where we can work with entrepreneurs from our communities to open up businesses and improve our commercial corridors …” she said.
The previous policy and research director for We the People Michigan said one of her first big tasks will be making sure the city’s annual budget funds the services Detroiters need and looking at why the budget for the police department is so large.
“I know one of the things residents want in my district, and I think across the city as a whole, are basic city services that … all of us pay taxes for, and we’re still missing streetlights, we still have sidewalks that are completely missing,” she said. “(Some residents) are leaving to neighboring cities …”
She also narrowed in on population loss and the “two Detroits” narrative, saying she understands investing downtown in a “strong core,” but that “as we ignore the rest of the city that is massive, we’re going to actually be losing our residents … and for me that’s not necessarily sustainable.”
Santiago-Romero also said she’s interested in joining work Sheffield has done toward instituting a Detroit baseline annual median income to use in affordable housing efforts. The regional median income is used to assess affordability for housing projects and it’s higher than Detroit’s, which puts a burden on city residents.
Santiago-Romero is also going to be the first openly LGBTQ councilwoman in Detroit. She said she expects her staff to include queer and/or non-binary members and wants to look at making sure the city is an inclusive place to work when it comes to pronoun use and identifying more than two genders.
Tate is still intent on bringing recreational cannabis to Detroit. The city’s recreational cannabis ordinance led by incumbent Tate is still stalled in litigation, meaning only medically licensed marijuana sellers can open in the biggest municipality in the state, despite adult-use sales being allowed starting two years ago.
“We have been working to identify a different ordinance that will incorporate some of the concerns that the judge has but still keeps intact the forward-thinking for Detroiters in this particular industry,” Tate said. “… So that is definitely a priority because we’re losing funds, we’re losing the ability for Detroiters to take part in this industry that has shown no ceiling at this point.”
He said there’s been “animus” from constituents who don’t get what the holdup is. It’s essential he get the new ordinance in place, he said, and he’ll need to meet with his colleagues and garner their support to do that.
Another big priority is repairing relationships with communities to build back trust that many have lost in their government.
When it comes to the FBI investigation, Tate said he generally doesn’t want to comment because it’s “out of my hands,” but it would help to have finality. In terms of trust, Tate thinks that when council members resign over guilty pleas it truly hurts trust.
Young, the son of Detroit’s first Black mayor and who lost to Duggan in the 2017 mayoral race, has made headlines over his idea for piloting a guaranteed income program in the city.
The former state representative and senator points to stipends being given in Stockton, Calif., as an example of his idea. The figures could be changed, but the gist is: Give $500 a month to 125 people for 18 months to two years and see how it works.
“I want to work with the administration, as well as my colleagues, to determine where are the largest places of need in terms of poverty in the city of Detroit,” Young said.
That would be $9,000-$12,000 per person for the duration of the proposed program, for a total spend of $1.1 million-$1.5 million.
Young wants to work with nonprofits that operate locally on potentially funding the initiative, as well as national programs working on basic income. He also mentioned the $826.7 million Detroit got through the American Rescue Plan Act. City Council already approved uses for those pandemic relief funds, so that depends on how much flexibility there is.
Like other Detroit lawmakers, Young pointed to affordable housing as an early-term priority. And when it comes to development, Young wants to seek more funding for environmental remediation work on sites that may be cost-prohibitive, like the Packard Plant. He also wants to secure more middle-wage jobs from new developments to increase Detroit’s average median income.
Although Young has been critical of Duggan, he said he plans to have a “professional working relationship” with the mayor.
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