An interesting discussion on Facebook was started when someone shared a New York Times op-ed, “Let Syrians Settle Detroit” by David D. Laitin and Marc Jahrmay. The idea is provocative, but–I think–sound.
Detroit, a once great city, has become an urban vacuum. Its population has fallen to around 700,000 from nearly 1.9 million in 1950. The city is estimated to have more than 70,000 abandoned buildings and 90,000 vacant lots. Meanwhile, desperate Syrians, victims of an unfathomable civil war, are fleeing to neighboring countries, with some 1.8 million in Turkey and 600,000 in Jordan.
[. . .]
Syrian refugees would be an ideal community to realize this goal [of repopulation], as Arab-Americans are already a vibrant and successful presence in the Detroit metropolitan area. A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan of 1,016 members of this community (58 percent of whom were Christian, and 42 percent Muslim) found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.
What confidence can we have that traumatized war refugees can be transformed into budding American entrepreneurs? We cannot know for sure. But recent evidence of recaptured children from the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and victims of violent crime across five continents reveals that they become more active citizens than similar compatriots who have not suffered from these traumatic events. In the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, Syrians, despite psychological scars and limited resources, have set up 3,500 shops, stores and other businesses.
Refugees resettled from a single war zone have helped revitalize several American communities, notably Hmong in previously neglected neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Bosnians in Utica, N.Y., and Somalis in Lewiston, Me.
Resettling Syrians in Detroit would require commitment and cooperation across different branches and levels of our government, but it is eminently feasible. President Obama and Congress would have to agree to lift this year’s refugee ceiling by 50,000. The State Department, which handles overseas processing of refugees, would need to open offices at the camps in Jordan and Turkey, determine eligibility and administer a lottery for resettlement. Homeland Security, which controls the borders, would have to carry out accelerated security checks, as has been done in the past for Vietnamese and for Iranian religious minorities. Health and Human Services would need an expansion in the $1.5 billion it budgets for refugee resettlement.
Someone in the comments linked to a Detroit Free Press article noting that rents are starting to rise substantially in that city.
Rental rates in downtown Detroit-area buildings have risen so high, some young professionals who breathed new life into the city core just a few years ago are now being priced out of the market and forced to move — a type of middle-class gentrification that has some developers eager to build new residential projects.
Development experts say demand far exceeds existing rental units in choice areas, such as Midtown, Corktown and the Detroit riverfront, where influxes of mostly young, well-paid professionals drove rental rates to new heights in new, existing and soon-to-open apartment buildings.
In many cases, landlords are asking $200 to $400 more a month for apartment leases than they were just a year or two ago because of the high demand and almost nonexistent new supply.
The phenomenon cannot be captured by the traditional definition of “gentrification,” when low-income households are displaced by the yuppie class. Rather, renters already in the middle class and enjoying professional careers now are being displaced by those even farther up the income scale who can afford the higher rents.
“Our office routinely turns down probably two people a day, letting them know we just can’t help them find something to rent,” said Ryan Cooley, owner of O’Connor Real Estate and Development in Corktown. “There’s just a lot of 20-year-olds wanting to live in the city.”