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Detroit city council member's "People's Bills" tackle some of city's inequities

Spirit of Detroit
Photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio
Spirit of Detroit

One Detroit city council member is putting forth a slew of proposals she says will help correct some major inequities in the city.

Council President Pro-Tem Mary Sheffield’s bills aim to address a widely-held perception: that while pockets of Detroit boom with new development, most of the city’s longtime residents aren’t seeing any benefits. These bills deal with some of the city's most pressing "socioeconomic and human rights issues," Sheffield said.

One issue is affordable housing. The city passed an affordable housing ordinance last year that, among other things, requires that housing developments receiving public subsidies above $500,000 include at least 20% affordable units.

But some critics argue the ordinance’s definition of “affordable” is out of reach for many Detroit families, who on average put an estimated 60% of their monthly income toward housing costs. And activists say the city didn’t provide the $2 million it promised for a housing trust fund serving the lowest-income Detroiters.

Amina Kirk with the group Detroit People’s Platform says that needs to change.

“We’re asking for the money, because we know you have it,” said Kirk, noting the money from that fund would be put toward home repairs, relocation assistance, and other measures.

Sheffield’s bills would address that, amending the existing ordinance to increase funding, create a community oversight board, and bring in more affordable units for the poorest families.

Another big proposal: an ordinance mandating that all development projects via city contracts, or that receive public financing or tax abatements, hire at least 51% Detroiters for their workforce. It would also assess penalties to contractors who don’t comply.

Mayor Mike Duggan has already issued an executive order with that same employment goal for some projects, but many developers have had trouble meeting it, saying they can’t find enough skilled Detroiters for their projects.

Sheffield says codifying the current standards through an ordinance will make sure they’re broadly enforced. And some people question whether developers are trying hard enough to reach those goals, instead choosing to pay financial penalties that critics argue are too small.

Will Aaron is with the Emerging Industries Training Center in Detroit. He says it can help provide those skilled workers.

“For them to say there are not Detroit companies involved in the training of the residents is false,” Aaron said. “We are here, we are ready to train, and we are ready to make sure that Detroiters are employed.”

Another proposed ordinance would tackle a perpetually vexing issue in Detroit: water affordability.Sheffield and others have long pushed for an income-based water affordability plan, but have run into resistance from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and other top city leaders, who claim such a plan wouldviolate state law.

Sheffield questions that interpretation, and plans to push for a water affordability ordinance anyway. But, “If the ordinance is not legally feasible, I am willing to lead an effort to put this measure before the residents of the city of Detroit by voter initiative,” said Sheffield, adding a lawsuit to determine legality once and for all might be another possible route.

Until such a plan is implemented, Sheffield and other activists are calling for a moratorium on water shutoffs. Detroit has shut off water to tens of thousands of households since 2014, creating conditions many say put poor families perpetually at risk.

“Water is a human right, and depriving residents of access to clean, safe drinking water is inhumane, and a serious threat to the public health of our city,” Sheffield said.

Other bills in Sheffield’s “People’s Bills” package include:

  • Amending Detroit’s current Community Benefits Ordinance to, among other things, lower the price threshold for developments to qualify for community benefits agreements, and legally-binding agreements that involve more community input.
  • An ordinance permanently codifying the terms of a recent city settlementwith the Michigan ACLU, that aims to make sure low-income Detroiters have access to a property tax exemption for those living in poverty. Lack of knowledge and access to that tax exemption have helped fuel the city's tax foreclosure crisis.
  • Reduce parking fines. Under an order from Detroit’s former emergency manager during the city’s bankruptcy, those fines were now raised to a minimum of $45; Sheffield’s bill calls for reducing them to $30, or $15 for those who pay within a ten-day window.
  • Eliminating cash bail for some crimes. A national movement is seeking to end cash bail, arguing that it punishes low-income defendants by keeping them imprisoned before trial, regardless of their risk to the public. Sheffield proposes replacing bail with a risk assessment that would determine if defendants are eligible for bond while awaiting trial.
  • An ordinance that would put community control over police surveillance, following a model developed by the ACLU.
  • Boosting pay for most Detroit police officers, as the department deals with a major attrition problem.
  • Providing renters facing eviction with the right to legal counsel.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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