[ I’ve posted a number of pieces by Pete Saunders here in the past. He’s not just a great analyst generally, he’s particularly great on Detroit. His post laying out nine reasons why Detroit failed has more page views than any other article in Urbanophile history. (The top four posts are all about Detroit, showing the powerful hold that city has on the public consciousness). In his blog, Corner Side Yard, he’s bee revisiting that post to go in depth on each of his nine points. Today I’m pleased to be able to repost his analysis of Detroit’s housing stock, along with that of many other Midwest cities – Aaron. ]
A scene from the Grixdale neighborhood on Detroit’s northeast side. Source: Google Earth.
Grouping the cities by population figures from the 2013 U.S. Census population estimates, and housing data from the 2008-2012 American Community Survey, I looked at housing age and single family detached housing data for 15 Midwest/Rust Belt cities with populations above 250,000. One city I typically include in an analysis like this, Louisville, was not included due to a lack of ACS data. Data for the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul were aggregated into one (sorry, Minneapolis and St. Paul) because they jointly function as the core city for their region. Here’s the big table with all the data:
But does it really? If you look at the Census’ earliest category for age of structure, 1939 or earlier, Detroit drops considerably on the list:
Next, let’s look at how the cities rank in terms of their concentrations of single family detached homes:
Clearly, most observers believe Detroit has more in common with Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburgh than with Ft. Wayne, Kansas City and Indianapolis. What happened to Detroit’s housing stock that gave it such an odd profile?
To understand, let’s pull out a specific category on the age of structure table, the 1950-1959 category:
How did Detroit get this way? Housing demolition likely had some role in a city that lost so much. Detroit likely lost older single family homes and multifamily buildings over the last few decades, leading to skewed numbers. The same is also true of Indianapolis, Kansas City and Columbus, cities that annexed large undeveloped areas after 1970 and built new housing there. Keep in mind, though, that Milwaukee and Toledo, Detroit’s comparables, may not have had the same level of demolition loss that Detroit had, yet they still match the Motor City well.
That leads me to believe that a concentration of housing development at a unique time is a crucial piece in understanding Detroit’s housing stock.
Here’s another way of looking at this. I grouped the cities by age and single family home concentration and came up with interesting groupings:
Finally, let’s consider housing adaptability as part of the housing stock analysis. Chicago, the region’s largest city and lone “global city” member of the group, comfortably rests in the middle of all tables except for the single family detached table, where it shows the lowest concentration of single family homes. My guess is that Chicago’s continued desirability means more newer housing has been built, and that its lower single family housing numbers mean that other housing types (lofts, condos and the ubiquitous 2-flat and 3-flat) created a more flexible and adaptable housing development landscape.
Assuming that younger structures are more often suitable to renovation for adaptability, moderately old structures require more intense rehabs, and older types are more often subject to demolition and rebuilding, I reorganized the previous table in terms of housing adaptability:
The more I study Detroit, the more I see the seeds of a similar downfall in other cities nationwide.
This post originally appeared in Corner Side Yard on July 6, 2014.