A group of Detroit residents are pushing to put a new law on the November ballot that would require developers seeking tax breaks from the city to negotiate a community benefits agreement with affected neighborhoods, reports the Detroit Free Press. As Next City reported last year, City Council President Brenda Jones and others have been advocating for a community benefits ordinance for years. One was proposed in 2014, but never put to vote before the full council. Tired of waiting, the grassroots Rise Together Detroit campaigners want to give the decision to voters instead.
Their proposed ordinance is virtually identical to the one stalled before city council: Developers with a project of $15 million or more seeking at least a $300,000 subsidy would be required to meet with community members to negotiate a legally binding community benefits agreement. Such deals are intended to hold developers accountable for promises often made — and often broken — regarding the economic benefit or jobs creation following a new project. “We are watching changes happen in Detroit so quickly and we are confident that the growth will continue,” Jones wrote in a letter published by the Free Press last week. “However, we need to raise our standards of what we deserve when we invest our land or tax dollars. We deserve better than trinkets that don’t hold up after the development is complete.”
Detroit’s history is littered with such deals, exemplified by the publicly financed Red Wings stadium. Rise Together Detroit wants to give residents voice in projects like this, which will shape their neighborhoods for decades to come. The group has collected 5,460 signatures to put the law on the ballot, 4,583 of which were deemed valid by the city’s clerk’s office — enough to put ordinance to the voters.
Another group called the Committee for Detroit Jobs is still challenging the validity of some of those signatures, and generally opposing the ordinance. Mayor Mike Duggan opposes it too. “It will drive jobs away from the city of Detroit,” said Charlie Beckham, Duggan’s group executive for the department of neighborhood, in a statement. While Beckham said the mayor generally supports community benefits agreements, he also said an ordinance requiring them would create a barrier to attracting businesses and that the negotiation process could easily be coopted by people with conflicts of interest.
The City Council has two months to adopt the proposed ordinance or to forward it to the Detroit Election Commission, which would decide whether it can lawfully be put to vote in November.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.