Bootleggers and Baptists in Detroit

The massive layoffs within the auto industry have exacerbated housing problems in Detroit, but by many accounts, the city has been in decline for decades. While the population loss and unemployment in Detroit is much more severe than in most parts of the country, central city decay is not unique to Michigan. Because the auto industry’s collapse has made Detroit’s situation worse, Time has established a blog for local writers and photojournalists to document their perceptions of their city.  Daniel Okrent writes:

Detroit fell victim not to one malign actor but to a whole cast of them. For more than two decades, the insensate auto companies and their union partners and the elected officials who served at their pleasure continued to gun their engines while foreign competitors siphoned away their market share. When this played out against the city’s legacy of white racism and the corrosive two-decade rule of a black politician who cared more about retribution than about resurrection, you can begin to see why Detroit careened off the road.

Okrent identifies the problems consistent with the Bootleggers and Baptists theory in political decisions.  While policies may seem benign, they are often backed by special interests who have their own benefit in mind at the expense of the general population. This phenomenon is particularly visible in the city’s zoning and land use regulation, which many blame for the common pattern of inner city decline. In Detroit, this was witnessed as low-density, relatively expensive housing in the suburbs, with higher density housing and a shrinking population of generally lower-income residents left in the city center.

Because the city has now been losing population for decades, the housing stock is greater than necessary, and some occupied houses are surrounded by  abandoned ones. As suggested in Flint, a city with a similar problem with vacant homes, some people propose that Detroit should use its eminent domain power to buy out neighborhoods that include vacant houses and turn them into green space.

While this program might sound like it would benefit the city as a whole, zoning’s controversial history should caution Detroit residents against supporting a policy that will necessarily benefit some residents at the expense of others.  Across the country’s urbanities, we have seen that zoning is subject to abuse by policy makers and wealthy or well-connected citizens, making it difficult or impossible for the land use market to serve others fairly.

Rather than looking to the political process to improve Detroit’s neighborhoods, residents should acknowledge the myriad opportunities that the city’s relatively cheap housing, capital, and unemployed labor offer to future investors. In Flint, home buyers have already purchased low-priced historic homes for renovation. Detroit is full of opportunities for entrepreneurs, provided its history of corrupt politics comes to an end.