Prove Up Detroit

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What if Detroit were the Ellis Island of the 21st century? A landing spot, and proving ground, for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who want to move to the United States. What if the city served as a model for dozens of other American cities that have shrunk over the last fifty years? What if we could repopulate American cities, starting with Detroit, in one whizz-bang epic move?Here’s how it might work:

1.) Immigrants are granted a residential city or state owned property in Detroit. We have 100,000 of them, and no clue what to do with them. Why not engage in some quid pro quo? Millions of people want to move to the United States, and we need people to help us invest time and energy in rebuilding the city.

A selection (not all!) of publicly owned land on the lower east side of Detroit.

A selection (not all!) of publicly owned land on the lower east side of Detroit.

2.) Immigrants have five years to “prove up” the land. The old Homestead Acts granted government owned land to Americans on the condition they improved, or “proved up,” the land within five years. At the time, there was no good mechanism for verifying homesteaders’ claims that they had indeed made improvements to the land, and widespread fraud undermined the various Homestead Acts. But these days, it would be easy to survey, track, and verify the progress immigrants made on their property.

3.) Welcome to America! Here’s your Green Card. At the end of five years, immigrant property, standing (employment, background checks, etc.), are evaluated. If everything checks out, you get a Green Card. Welcome!

What would Detroit look like if we threw open the doors like this? Well, Gallup recently found that 138 million people worldwide would like to move to the United States — about three times as many people as the second highest rated emigration destination, the United Kingdom. From big countries and small, people want to move to the USA; millions from China, Nigeria, Brazil, and India, alongside high percentages of the population from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and the Dominican Republic.

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There are all kinds of variations on a theme you could include in this idea — incentives for those who want to open a business, or relocate a business, in Detroit. Or including a quota of Americans in the offering (for the homestead, not the Green Card, of course).

The fact that people from around the world want to live here is, to my mind, the most valuable thing America has going for it. It’s the reason the country achieved so much in the 20th century, and probably our greatest hope for remaining an interesting and profitable country into the 21st.

40 major cities across the United States, from Chicago to Philadelphia, Pittsburg and Cleveland, have lost a collective 7.5 million people over the last 50 years. A model that works in Detroit could be applied beyond our borders, and bring diversity of experience, background, culture, and capacity to cities across the country.

As with everything good from the last century, though, it should start in Detroit.

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Some Billionaires’ Folly

Detroit is suffocated by $15.6 billion in long-term debt, crumbling infrastructure, no city services, crippling poverty, struggling schools… The hackneyed metaphors go on. Most say Detroit is done for, finished, an infected cyst on the palm of Michigan. But I just can’t reconcile that attitude with what I think is plain to see: Detroit is the best investment opportunity since some numbskull bought Alaska for $7 million.

Now, I don’t know much about investment opportunities, but I can’t imagine that if I had $15.6 billion to burn, I wouldn’t be intrigued by the prospect of calling up Kevyn Orr and asking what I’d get in Detroit for that price.

I imagine the list would go something like, the Water and Sewerage Department, the DIA, 80,000 – 100,000 properties and the right to redevelop and sell them as I saw fit… Plus I’d probably wind up with the ability to do some creative financial stuff with all the money owed in pensions.

Beyond just the assets you’d buy, you’d be buying them in a city that sits on an international border with the United States’ largest trading partner. Despite one billionaire’s protests, a second bridge will soon augment the percentage of the U.S. and Canada’s $500 billion per year in trade that passes through Detroit. Detroit is also situated with access to more freshwater than anyplace else on earth, outside of a Siberian lake in Russia.

Again to perspective: From one view, Detroit has 700,000 citizens and no capacity to employ them or provide jobs. From another, all that this city has is jobs. There is more work to be done in Detroit than even 700,000 people could accomplish — there’s just no one to train and pay them to do the work. But imagine if $15.6 billion in debt just – poof! – disappeared. Even the meager income the city has could surely stir up some Works Progress Administration and put people back to work.

Instead of spending the 16 months focused on debt, the emergency manager and Detroit politicos could spend that time focused on putting systems in place that ensure we never arrive in a position like this again.

I’m not advocating this necessarily. I have spent no time thinking or writing on the political or societal or democratic implications of something like this, and there are many. But I can’t look at our present state in Detroit and not see it as an incredible investment opportunity.

Warren Buffett likes to buy low, and Dan Gilbert is already a billionaire on the ground. I wonder if they’ve talked.

Note: I’m sure there are people who will say this is, practically speaking, “impossible.” Like I said, I have no idea what I’m talking about, and would love to learn why this is impossible.

Addendum: I focused on the billionaire angle because it was clean and easy, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this as an alternative: Instead of a couple billionaires putting up $15.6 billion, what if a few hundred thousand, or million, people crowdfunded $15.6 billion? This notion was addressed glibly in a recent video. They were actually on to something.

Squat or Die

A post in collaboration with Why Don’t We Own This?

An only-in-Detroit news item buzzed about the internet today: Fox reported that a woman is being forced to live alongside a squatter in her own home, the squatter is refusing to leave, and cannot be evicted by force.

Oh, also the squatter is a write-in candidate for president because Detroit.

There are a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of interested parties in this story, of course, and I don’t care to rehash everything here — or speculate on which parts of the Fox story are worded weasel-ey to get a rise out of readers, and which are just poorly written.

I thought it might be good, though, to provide some useful information on squatter’s rights. Here is a link (WARNING: It is a link to a PDF!) to a document titled “‘Squatter’s’ Rights in Detroit: A Legal Analysis.” It includes such useful tidbits as this:

“Generally, “squatters” fall into two (2) categories. “Squatters” are considered: (1) people who occupy what would otherwise be vacant or abandoned homes without the permission of the owner and (2) people who once had a legal right to occupy a home, but subsequently lost that right by defaulting on their mortgage or lease.”

Distinction! Good to know.

Hopefully it provides some helpful information and, should you find yourself in a similar situation to the aforementioned lady, you know you have an alternative to the most popular suggestion in the news story’s comment section:

“Squatters? Walk in, shoot them, call the police and say that someone broke into your house. You walked in during a home invasion. Problem solved!”