Schools and safety top reasons Detroiters may leave city

A school hallway with a welcome sign hanging up on the wall
A Gallup poll of Detroit residents found that schools and safety are factors that lead many to consider leaving the city. (Nic Antaya for Chalkbeat)

A new survey shows Detroit residents have a lower quality of life compared with those in neighboring suburban communities, shedding light on why Detroiters may leave the city but not Wayne County.

The Gallup Center on Black Voices poll found high crime and the desire to find a better place to raise their children are the top reasons Detroiters want to leave the city — only 26% of residents said their community is safe, and 18% said all children in their neighborhood have access to high-quality public schools. Black Detroiters are even less likely to have access to affordable housing, opportunities for good-paying jobs, city services, neighborhood amenities, and quality education, according to the survey.

“I used to judge my friends harshly when they would move out of Detroit,” said Dwan Dandridge, co-founder and CEO of Black Leaders Detroit, which connects entrepreneurs to no-interest business loans. “But when you consider what it looks like to really count the cost, I’m a lot less judgy and more thinking about: What do we do as a community, as a city, to make sure we have some of those things we need?

“When you make a conscious decision stay and then your kids become the age when you need to put them in school, we have a number of friends that tried and (decided), ‘If I look at what it cost to look somewhere else versus paying for private school, I may as well move into a better school district.’ Then you deal with lower crime rates, better schools and amenities in close proximity to your home.”

Survey results came weeks after the U.S. Census Bureau released new data showing Detroit lost 7,791 residents from 2021 to 2022. Mayor Mike Duggan has challenged the accuracy of the count, but agrees that residents “by and large” are leaving the city because of education and crime. 

“A lot of the blight issues, the streetlight issues, a lot of those things were factors 10 years ago and aren’t factors today, but there’s no doubt (crime and education) are the two issues,” Duggan said in an interview.

Most Detroiters say they would move if they could

The national polling firm surveyed 6,243 Detroit residents and 5,227 residents living in Detroit suburbs in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties last year. Data was collected through paper mail and an online survey. 

The Gallup Center released its findings Thursday at the Mackinac Policy Conference. The survey showed 57% of Detroit residents say they would move permanently to another area if they had the opportunity. Black residents were slightly more likely to consider moving than white and Hispanic Detroiters.

Nearly half of Detroiters who said they would move out of the city also said they would stay in the Detroit metro area. 

Noah Urban, co-executive director of Data Driven Detroit, said census data shows more neighborhoods are growing compared with the previous decade. Clusters of ZIP codes are showing population growth around Midtown and downtown, neighborhoods like Palmer Woods and Grandmont-Rosedale, immigrant communities like Banglatown, and the border with Dearborn.

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The Gallup poll identified Detroit neighborhoods with a higher quality of life, and that map lines up neatly with census data, showing those neighborhoods are seeing population gains.

Detroit’s unemployment rate hit a 33-year low in April, dropping to 4.2%. Duggan said this shows opportunity is available in the city, though only 4 in 10 Detroit residents reported satisfaction with the availability of good-paying jobs. Meanwhile, 72% of suburban residents were satisfied with job opportunities.

“We see neighborhoods that we identify as having property-related problems — blight, abandonment, danger — for those of us in the Black community who were born and raised here, we associate those communities with traumatic experiences,” Dandridge said. “Some of our white peers, when they see those same spaces, they see vacancy, opportunity, and what could be. We have to get Black Detroiters that have stayed access to some of these pots of money that are out there.” 

Four in 10 Detroit residents said there were times in the past year when they didn’t have enough money to buy food for themselves or their families, while 23% said they didn’t have enough to provide adequate shelter or housing.

Schools and policing need to improve, Duggan says

Detroiters are twice as likely compared with the national average to be dissatisfied with schools in their area, per the Gallup poll. Half of city residents between ages 18 and 39 believe kids would be better off at school in another area.

Duggan said he has trust in Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, and Police Chief James White. The mayor said schools have to bounce back from learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic, and police need to address violence as the department deals with a manpower shortage. 

Duggan said officers are coming back to Detroit after wages were raised last year. Duggan is also pushing the state Legislature to pass a police officer revenue sharing proposal, which would send $100 million to Michigan cities to hire more officers. 

“We had 300 (officer) vacancies at the start of the year; we filled 100 already, we’ll have another 100 filled by the end of September, and we’ll have all filled by the end of the year,” Duggan said. 

Duggan said police respond quickly to shootings, but residents notice the lack of officers in their neighborhoods. The Gallup poll found 60% of Black Detroiters want police to spend more time in their area. Less than a third of Detroit residents surveyed said they feel safe walking alone in their area at night.

“You’ve got people running red lights in this city. It drives me nuts, and it’s a lack of the kind of patrol officers that other cities would have,” Duggan said. “How much better would you feel if you saw a car go down the street once in a while? We certainly want more neighborhood police officers. We’re definitely going to expand the NPOs.” 

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Middle-class exodus creates a ‘spiral’ effect

The survey drew a link between quality of life and health outcomes. It found Detroiters who are struggling to survive are more likely to face depression, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma. 

It also highlighted the effect of a mass departure of middle-class residents to the suburbs. A decades-long population slide caused a decline in the city’s tax base, impacting its ability to provide quality services and further contributing to the loss of middle-class households.

“It is a spiral, and it’s a problem,” Detroit Chief Financial Officer Jay Rising said in an interview. 

The survey cites a 2019 Detroit Future City study, which found Detroit has the lowest share of middle-class neighborhoods out of the largest 50 U.S. cities, though Detroit ranks sixth for its share of Black middle-class neighborhoods. The nonprofit research group found 33 census tracts meet the definition of a Black middle-class neighborhood in metro Detroit, of which 11 are located in the city.

Survey results were used to group residents into three categories reflecting their quality of life: “thriving,” “struggling,” or “suffering.” Gallup determined the categories by looking at education and employment opportunities; physical and mental health; neighborhood services, amenities, environment and living conditions; satisfaction with law enforcement; and access to social capital. 

Detroit residents are less likely than suburban residents to rate their lives highly enough to be considered thriving — 40% versus 52%. Black Detroiters were even less likely to be thriving (40%) compared with Hispanic residents (43%) and white residents (46%). 

Homeownership is much lower for Detroiters (48%) compared with suburban residents (76%).  Black residents across the region are far less likely to be homeowners. 

The lack of affordable housing in the city likely undermines many residents’ sense of financial security, according to the survey — 29% of Detroiters say they are satisfied with the availability of good, affordable housing in their area, compared with 55% of suburban residents.

The survey shows neighborhood cleanliness is linked to the likelihood to recommend Detroit as a good place to live, suggesting that beautification and cleanup efforts could help encourage people to move into the city.

Poor transportation network poses barriers

Detroiters have less access to amenities compared with suburban neighbors, per Gallup poll, with big gaps in access to parks, grocery stores, places to go out, and social events.

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Transportation is another major issue. Problems with access to a car kept half of Detroiters from finding or keeping a job, and 44% said limited access to convenient public transportation is a barrier to keeping or finding a job. Detroit has the most expensive auto insurance rates of any major U.S. city, making car ownership cost-prohibitive for low-income residents.

Suburban residents reported public transportation is less accessible compared with Detroiters, according to the Gallup poll. 

Dwight Ferrell, CEO of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, said SMART is dealing with a shortage of 100 bus drivers, though negotiations are in progress with unions to increase wages. 

The Detroit Department of Transportation also needs to fill around 100 vacant operator positions, Duggan said. The city is considering a major overhaul of its transit network, but Duggan said improving reliability and expanding service will rely on filling the shortfall in part  through recent wage increases. 

“Before we start promising these other things, we need to get back to reliable service on the road, and we’re working on that,” Duggan said. 

Malachi Barrett is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. You can reach him at mbarrett@bridgedetroit.com.

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