Challenges facing the City of Detroit are, to quote one city staff member, “very, very simple.” The city needed staff who understood the city’s priorities, which were immediate, urgent, and basic by many standards. In this environment, team members and particularly the SC2 team lead primarily served transactional roles for the city, frequently as an “extra set of hands.” Nonetheless the team contributed to several notable accomplishments across a breadth of SC2 team activities, which are highlighted below.
Team members who had pre-existing connections to the city had a clear path to continuing or enhancing their role in Detroit. One such member is the DOT SC2 team representative. He was already working extensively in the region trying to help the city meet planning and assessment deadlines associated with a $25 million transportation grant that the city was at risk of losing if those deadlines were not met. As a team member, the DOT representative brokered relationships between the city and the business community to see the M-1 rail project through multiple iterations, ultimately reaching its current form of a streetcar serving a downtown district. The final plan limited the financial liability of the city, supported the goals of the business community, and allowed the $25 million federal grant to be repurposed toward the newly defined transportation goals.
Beyond the M-1 rail project, the DOT representative was able to promote the development of a comprehensive regional transit plan through the creation of a regional transit authority. Southeast Michigan was the largest region in the country without a regional transit authority (RTA). An RTA was considered a necessary step toward creating high-capacity rapid transit in key transportation corridors, coordinating bus transit services through the region, and better integrating public transportation with local and regional land use. The team member provided technical assistance on drafting that legislation and conducted workshops throughout the region on bus rapid transit and on the benefits of an RTA. The bill to establish an RTA was signed into law by the state legislature in January 2013.
Housing and Community Development
The housing and community development sector posed key challenges for Detroit. These included inefficient and incomplete use of funds, poor relations between the city and the public housing agency, and a high volume of abandoned and dilapidated properties.
The HUD team member successfully partnered with the city and the Detroit Housing Commission to identify a source of funds to address the Brewster-Douglass Homes, a massive public housing development, vacant since 2008, which was a highly visible symbol of blight and abandonment as well as a threat to safety and security. While the community was well aware of the need to demolish the structures, annual funding was insufficient to cover the cost of the major project. The HUD team member was persistent in exploring options for funding the demolition and ultimately identified HUD emergency funds as a potential source. The SC2 team representative coordinated data collection with the city and the housing commission to demonstrate the public safety concerns associated with the vacant property. The housing authority was successful in demonstrating the public safety risks and received emergency funds
to support demolition, which started in late 2013.
The SC2 team, through the DOJ team member, helped to align Detroit’s blight removal work with priorities of the Youth Violence Prevention Forum. City government was actively working on board-ups and blight removal in neighborhoods across Detroit, but with its own criteria for prioritizing the scarce funds by placing a premium on sites ripe for re-development. At the same time, the Forum had identified specific sites where children traveled to school through derelict areas. Some of these children were responding to the danger by simply skipping school. The SC2 team lead brought together the city’s group executive of planning and facilities with leadership from the Youth Violence Prevention Forum to seek opportunities for coordination. As a result, some of the city’s demolition funds were redirected to support safer routes to school.
In every area, using federal funds already allocated to the city was a priority. Team members helped the city to more effectively use these funds in several instances, which are described below.
- Through the COPS grant the city was able to retain 120 police officers. This helped prevent layoffs and demonstrated that public safety was a priority.
- A new source of funding was identified to demolish the blighted Douglass Homes development (see above).
- Existing funds were repurposed and used to fund Text My Bus.
- In the last instance above, Code for America, which had been working with the city on innovative information technology solutions, identified an opportunity to tap the city’s existing data on bus locations to create an application to help riders know when the next bus will arrive at any given bus stop. The application, Text My Bus, is expected to help students arrive at school on time and also support the violence prevention initiative. Working with Code for America, the SC2 team lead and the DOT representative identified a source of funds, two unused grants dating back to 2009 ($1.5 million and $2 million) that could be redirected to make this project sustainable over an approximately two-year period,
Overall, the core team members were able to make inroads on some significant activities while also facilitating daily government capacity. However, some activities were less successfully implemented. For example, while a team member was assigned from the federal Department of Education, that member found no easy entry point for involvement. The Detroit Public Schools were already under the control of an emergency manager and were not under the mayor’s authority. This team member ultimately had little involvement in the SC2 pilot.