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Urban Homesteading

Recently, The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece in the opinion section that got me thinking about the reuse of vacant center city property. The article focused on the repopulation of hollowed out, long vacant residential city neighborhoods in Detroit. The problems facing Detroit’s dramatically declining population and subsequent abandonment of older housing stock has forced the city and state governments to address the issue from outside the box. About one-third of Detroit’s 139 square miles lies vacant and about 78,000 buildings have been abandoned!! As Detroit’s population disappeared, so too did the retail and office sectors that supported the needs of that population.

Detroit’s innovative answer to breathing new life into its center city is urban homesteading with a twist. The governor of the state, Rick Snyder, has proposed assigning 50,000 EB-2 work visas (green cards) to highly skilled foreigners who volunteer to live and work in Detroit for at least five years. Americans may have abandoned center cities as places to live and work but for many foreigners, they still look like diamonds in the rough.

Detroit has lost half its population since the 1970s—about 750,000 people. I would suggest a significant population decline also hit the Clevelands, Buffalos and Akrons too. Demolishing blighted housing and planting grass will help beautify a neighborhood and reduce crime but it won’t breathe new energy into the area or increase retail options for inhabitants. People living together form neighborhoods and neighborhoods generate economic activity.

Perhaps Rick Snyder is onto something. Homesteaders heading west in the 19th century tamed the harsh wilderness and populated the great open spaces. Many of the early settlers to the American west were foreigners who overcame great perils, including language, just for the chance to improve their lots. I suspect that if we allow foreigners to again “homestead” in place like Detroit we’ll have more applicants than visas! And, for the first time in decades, cities like Detroit will experience sustained growth and increased economic activity—a long awaited urban renaissance.

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