Are we taking time to SEE justice?
There’s an old saying, “Think before you leap.” Before we do anything, it’s always best to have an idea of what the outcome ought to be. When it comes to acting as a city, it’s best to make sure everyone is at least reasonably close to being on the same page before taking action. Cities generally go through all sorts of effort to make sure this is the case: They’ll pass resolutions and ordinances that represent a shared understanding of things. For some reason, though, when it comes to development, and doing so in a sustainable and equitable way – something we need to do sooner rather than later – Detroit seems to be missing the boat.
So, what is “equitable development”? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines equitable development as, “… an approach for meeting the needs of underserved communities through policies and programs that reduce disparities while fostering places that are healthy and vibrant.”
While the definition certainly seems clear enough, the challenge starts when we attempt to take action. How do we define underserved communities? What policies will be enacted? How will programs be measured for efficacy? Who will run the programs? The list of questions is nearly endless and complex.
With the help of some poetic license, it’s easy to see how equitable development concerns matters of justice. But what does justice mean? The dictionary defines it as “giving the other what is due.” And while this seems straight forward enough, we seem to have an uncanny ability to make it complex. We divide notions of justice into all sorts of categories. There’s work to advance social justice, but it’s different from the work to advance environmental or economic justice. When it comes to justice, we seem more interested in dissecting things and parsing meaning than we are in taking action.
What’s needed is a new, more holistic perspective. In this case, we can borrow from what’s being learned in business. Business leaders now recognize the theory of shareholder primacy is no longer valid. It’s no longer enough for a business to pursue profit as the only, single bottom line. In business, we’re now thinking in terms of the triple bottom line, or people, planet and profit value. We ought to do the same in the struggle for justice. We need to look at justice through a triple bottom line lens. Let’s call it the triple bottom line of social, environmental, and economic, or SEE justice. First, seek to SEE justice before taking action.
If we take a holistic, triple bottom line perspective and effectively channel our resources, we ought to be more efficient in making the whole of the system more just. We would seek to simultaneously create more just relationships with each other and our environment. When it comes to economics, though, we cannot have a relationship with property or capital. These are tools we use for bringing about justice. Property and capital are human inventions and are fungible. Modern human beings – homo sapiens – emerged some 200,000 years ago, and it wasn’t until roughly 10,000 years ago that we invented private property. If that means anything, we ought to come to grips with what private property is actually doing to our ability to achieve justice. To seek justice, we need to see capital and private property for what it is: a human invention that is nothing more than a tool. It’s certainly not something we ought to be serving, which far too many of us are doing.
The other thing we need to consider in this work is the extent to which the status quo brings about, or leads to justice – in the triple bottom line sense. In this case, the status quo should be thought of as all of the social, political, and economic institutions within which we work to meet the challenges of our day. One recent poll indicates 72% of us think we’re “headed in the wrong direction.” Another, taken before the pandemic, indicates “87% of Americans are either fairly or “very” worried about the future.” There are plenty of other signs that the status quo is failing to bring about justice in the triple bottom line sense.
The EPA’s equitable development definition also includes reference to underserved communities. Again, we have a word filled with meaning: communities. The First Nations have a much better sense of the word community. It’s the nature of the relationship we hold with the whole of the Earth system, which includes every living thing. However, there’s a modifier to the word community: underserved. “Underserved” could be interpreted as code for “the poor”, or those who do not have the power to alleviate their material suffering. What constitutes material suffering? Not having adequate access to what ought to be considered human rights, among which are access to food, water, shelter, clothing, and meaningful work. We are a far cry away from securing these things as rights for an overwhelming proportion of the US population.
We also need to recognize that community exists in space. In other words, the places where we live, take our nourishment, seek work, build relationships with each other, and so forth. When a community is undermined, or worse, torn apart, we need to look critically at how and why the systems we create do such things.
Equipped with these ideas, let’s look at the extent to which we see evidence of equitable development in Detroit. In this case, our focus will be on the geography known as the District Detroit, which is also known as downtown. It’s a place that has seen tremendous development in the recent past. To what extent do we see justice, and in particular, justice in the way we treat underserved communities?
Before going further, however, we need to understand gentrification, which is defined by Oxford as, “the process whereby the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.” In a market system lacking public policy that stands in the way, gentrification is the displacement, dispersion or scattering of those who make their community in a “poor urban area.” These are human beings who live in underserved communities. So, gentrification is neither just, nor does it fit the definition of equitable development.
A search for “gentrification in Detroit” reveals many different perspectives. One scholar argues that Detroit doesn’t have a gentrification problem, but rather a poverty problem. This seems like a circular argument. Without poverty, how can there be gentrification? That those neighborhoods now overwhelmingly occupied by the poor have not seen gentrification doesn’t mean they’re immune to it.
One study, however, provides a glimpse into the behavior of our system, a system built around the sacrosanct notion of a right to private property. In the study, “Gentrification-Induced Displacement in Detroit, Michigan: An Analysis of Evictions”, researchers examined eviction notices as a proxy for gentrification, or displacement of the poor. In a National Low-Income Housing Coalition blog about the report, the author writes, there is “…evidence that geographic patterns of evictions shift with patterns of gentrification.”
In particular, the blog notes, “Evictions may result from gentrification and rising rents, but they might also be a precursor to gentrification—landlords might use eviction in some neighborhoods to capitalize on rising housing values by expelling tenants and rehabilitating units.” The research includes a case study that examined “…a Section 8 building downtown for low-income seniors. The building provided affordable housing between 1980 and 2013 when it was sold and converted into luxury apartments.” For thirty-three years, a community of underserved people made their home in a particular place, a building in downtown Detroit. In 2013, for whatever reason, the “right” to evict this underserved community was conferred upon the new owners. What happened to the displaced is the focus of the case study.
We can study this stuff to death; however, if we fail to recognize the insidious nature of a system that does these things to the poor – an underserved community – we’ll never see anything close to equitable development.
Those of us who call Detroit and Southeast Michigan home seem to stand by as gentrification runs its course. We seem to think ideas such as “trickle down economics” actually work, when the past 50 years of history show they don’t. What’s perhaps even worse is that we let one individual – the 23th richest person on the planet – and his organization own grotesque amounts of property within the District Detroit. These are matters in need of critical examination. To what extent do we put our hope in the benevolence of the powerful few, rather than the wisdom of the demos? Until we understand the extent to which we’ve become beholden to the few who control private property and the flow of capital, we’ll continue to unduly struggle to SEE justice.