THE BLOG
11/18/2014 02:51 pm ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Detroit's Death Knell? Austerity, Structural Racism, Water Wars

Coauthored by Peter J. Hammer

The post-industrial dystopia emerging on the streets of Detroit may be shocking, but it is not surprising. The crisis results from the convergent forces of fiscal austerity and structural racism in a region defined by its extreme segregation of race, wealth and opportunity.

The people of Detroit desperately need our help. If one thought it was bad after the financial crisis when big banks foreclosed on 100,000 homes by the year 2012, an unscrupulous act that facilitated the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people and reduced the city's real estate value by one-third, think again.

If one thought it was bad when thousands of Detroit citizens had their water shut-off by local officials, resulting in the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner stating that it was a violation of human rights, with Canada sending emergency water supplies, think again.

Next year heralds the frightening but inevitable endgame of fiscal austerity that will forever change the character of this city. Stripped to the bones, Detroit will be a shell of its former self, offering minimal services of police and fire protection and that's about it. A city no longer, Detroit will be a convention and sports space with no municipal services to sustain it.

This comes on the heels of United Way's report last month indicating that 67 percent of Detroit families are either under the poverty line or what it identifies as "ALICE" (asset-limited, income-constrained, employed). The report illuminates a dangerous trend for Detroit: two-thirds of its residents cannot afford essentials such as housing and health care and no assistance is forthcoming.

Having recently participated in public meetings with the Mayor's and Governor's offices and Wayne County officials, it is clear that the next wave of 80,000 tax foreclosures and demolitions planned for 2015 may be the final punch that will knockout the city's core constituency and culture forever.

The Blight Removal Task Force Report, which backed by big developers and corporate executives, proposes spending $850 million to demolish residential homes, and the city can expect another $500 million to $1 billion to demolish larger commercial and industrial properties.

Considering that this money is going only to a few suburban developers and their crews, and could've been spent revitalizing economic and educational opportunities for Detroit's remaining low-income communities, reducing health disparities, helping with everything from head start to job training, next year is set up to be particularly crippling for residents.

While tragic, this fate is not inevitable and Detroit is not alone. The perverse logic of fiscal austerity is creating dozens of second-class "minimal cities." The move to transition Detroit away from serving as a city, to a slimmed down version with little to no municipal services, is part of a bankruptcy Plan of Adjustment (POA) that the city is pursuing, on par with what the World Bank and International Monetary Fund pursued with Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) in much of the developing world. What we know from these SAPs is that they sucked the life out of countries forced to receive them.

The same will happen with Detroit, especially given how out-of-touch the managers are with the city's history and context. The 226-page Export Report, for example, on the feasibility of the POA and the reasonableness of the city's revenue forecasts never addresses issues of race, racism, regionalism, segregation or foreclosure (all words that appear nowhere in the report). And poverty is only mentioned once.

Detroit planners need to take a lesson from the Kerner Commission Report, which was published in the wake of the 1967 rebellion and race riots in Detroit. Shockingly, the report is still relevant and required reading almost 50 years later, detailing necessary investments for employment, education, housing and more. If we fail to heed the report's findings now, we fail Detroit's citizens and enshrine forever the emerging reality of two societies -- one black, one white -- separate and unequal.

We need alternatives to the dictates of fiscal austerity and structural racism. The time is now to do something positive for Detroit before the city's homes are demolished, the residents are removed, and city services are outsourced. One source of positive thinking can be found in what the United Nations is calling for in 2015: a sustainable development agenda. Next year is a pivotal year for Detroit, to make it or break it.

The time is now to directly address poverty and racism and to envision a future for Detroit and other cities based on notions of sustainability and grounded in principles of racial and economic justice.

Hammer is professor if Law and director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School. Shank, PhD, is associate director for Legislative Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.