Asked and Answered

John Mogk on Detroit Works Project

By Steve Thorpe

With the recent arrival of an emergency financial manager in Detroit, many people’s focus is once again turned on the struggles of some big American cities, especially the ones with an industrial heritage. Prof. John Mogk of Wayne State University Law School has been involved for decades in research and teaching in the field of urban law and policy on issues including economic development, neighborhood rehabilitation and intergovernmental cooperation. Mogk has been an adviser to the City of Detroit on urban development initiatives including the Empowerment Zone program and the Detroit Works Project. He has also served on the Detroit Board of Education and was Chair of Habitat for Humanity Detroit from 1999 to 2006. He teaches courses in Property, State and Local Government Law, Energy, Land Use Planning, and Urban Development.

Thorpe: You joined the Wayne Law faculty in 1968, one year after Detroit was rocked by one of the nation’s most violent riots. How have the issues facing America’s big cities changed since the 1960s?

Mogk: The issues have not changed. All remain and conditions in cities like Detroit have grown worse, much worse. The quality of life, size of population, employment and investment base and quality of education were all much higher in 1967 than today. Detroit’s economic base has migrated to the suburbs and the city itself has become further separated from it.

Thorpe: After the upheaval of the ‘60s, a number of massive federal programs were implemented to help cities. Which ones worked, which ones didn’t, and why?

Very few provided help to cities over the next decade, most did not. There has been little long term lasting effect of any of the programs. The Kerner Commission appointed by President Johnson of 1968 identified the problems plaguing cities where riots occurred in the late 1960s. Detroit’s riot of 1967 was the largest and a principal focus of the commission’s work. National conferences held regularly over the past 45 years have consistently concluded that government has had little effect on reversing or controlling conditions that led to the earlier riots.

The federal Urban Development Action Grant Program (UDAG) was probably the most successful. It provided federal grants in partnership with the private sector to rebuild downtown areas.  The program helped to stabilize Detroit’s downtown to prepare for its current resurgence.

The federal 235 low down payment ($200) subsidy program to allow low income tenants to buy existing homes in Detroit’s older neighborhoods was the most destructive. Most if not all of the tens of thousand homes were abandoned when the purchasers elected to move, since they could not be sold for the principal remaining on the mortgage. The program was a mirror image of the underwater conditions of today’s neighborhoods in Detroit. Widespread abandonment occurred within roughly 25 percent of the city and has continued over the past several decades now reaching the border of the city.

 Thorpe: Tell us about the Detroit Works Project.

Mogk: The Detroit Works Project provides a vision for the city 25-50 years from now. It is thoughtful and reasonable in its approach to utilizing vacant land, addressing the issues of stabilizing the city’s remaining good neighborhoods and strategizing how to manage those that are in transition. However, it is only a planned vision. Major shortcomings are that it does not address how the city will become a participant in regional economic growth, which it must to reverse the decline. In addition, it is not clear what the private sector thinks of the plan. The private sector will be primarily responsible for carrying it out. 

Regarding implementation by the city (along with the private sector), there are four obstacles to achieving success:

1. Administrative capacity

2. Financing

3. Grass roots support in the neighborhoods

4. Authority to institute change, such as assembling land for new uses orvreallocating city services.

Thorpe: What role can smaller organizations like Habitat for Humanity play in the revitalization of cities?

Mogk: Smaller organizations such as Habitat and the Community Development Corporations around the city can play their traditional role of building and rehabilitating housing in neighborhoods that have a plan for long-term stabilization.  Their job also is to work with local residents on addressing neighborhood needs and to provide an opportunity for residents to join together in neighborhood improvement projects.

Thorpe: With the emergency manager concept, there is a heavy emphasis on balancing a city’s books. Is that too narrow a view?

Mogk: Both the governor and emergency manager have said that growth is the only way to turn the city around.  My understanding is that balancing the books is viewed as a precondition to launching a growth strategy.  No one is certain how long the balancing process will take.  During that period there will be shared pain among the residents, employees and other stakeholders of the city.  Balancing the books alone is too narrow and will not stem the continued slide. 

What do you hope will be dramatically different about Detroit in the year 2063?

Mogk: My hope is that the city will look somewhat like the vision in the Detroit Works plan with a revitalized downtown and midtown, healthy neighborhoods, expanding employment and investment base and full integration into the regional economy.