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Can Winnipeg model save Detroit?

Published on Sat, May 21, 2011

Detroit has become the poster child for urban decay. The city lost 25 per cent of its population between 2000 and 2010, and more than half its population since 1950. More than 90,000 houses stand empty, and many neighborhoods have been completely abandoned.

The burden of maintaining infrastructure and law enforcement in a city with an eroding tax base and sparse population has led to attempts to "shrink" the city. This means bulldozing several areas of the city and relocating existing residents. Mayor Dave Bing realizes this, and has pledged to knock down a staggering 10,000 structures during his first term.

In the past, such slum clearances led to vigorous opposition from urbanists like Jane Jacobs, who argued that top-down approaches to urban redevelopment would cause a great deal of pain for little to no benefit. Yet despite the fact that Jacobs is widely admired, the plan to shrink the city has met with little opposition in Detroit. Frankly, unless Detroit sees a major population surge, shrinking the city sadly may be necessary.

Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg appeared on NBC's Meet the Press, and mused about using immigration policy to repopulate the city. The premise makes perfect sense. Most of Detroit's problems stem from the fact that fewer and fewer people are working and paying taxes in the city. There is more infrastructure than people need or the city can afford.

Ultimately the issue then is getting people to live in Detroit. But the biggest problem, even with a mild resurgence in the auto sector, is that Americans, and even most Michiganders, don't want to live in Detroit, even with jobs.

For many immigrants, however, Detroit would seem like a major upgrade over their current situations. This is not a far-fetched notion. Here's a proposal for Detroit based on an unlikely Canadian immigration success story: Winnipeg.

When Americans think of Winnipeg, they think of white guys wearing earmuffs in July. When Canadians from outside of Manitoba think of Winnipeg, they think of a former industrial city that is hardly a draw to the much-sought-after "creative class" even though it has the nation's lowest housing cost. What no one from outside associates with Winnipeg is immigration.

Winnipeg's immigration success is not well known, but it is hard to dispute the facts. Smart immigration policies have helped Winnipeg stabilize its population and reverse its decline.

Between 1971 and 1996, Winnipeg grew by just under 16 per cent, or roughly 0.6 per cent per year. Like many North American cities, all of the growth was taking place in the suburbs. In fact, the population of downtown Winnipeg shrank by 23.25 per cent during that period. Though the rate of decline is nowhere near that of Detroit, the causes and effects are similar. Manufacturing declined; people moved to the suburbs, aided by highway expansions; residents moved to growing cities, like Calgary; ensuing job and population decline led to a decline in safety. The biggest difference is that racial tensions in Detroit exacerbated suburban flight. But the similarities are sufficient to use Winnipeg as a model.

In 1998, Manitoba introduced the provincial nominee program, which gave it the ability to recruit immigrants above federal immigration quotas. Since Manitoba was not seen as the most attractive place for new immigrants to settle, only 1.8 per cent of immigrants to Canada settled in there between 1996 and 2000. Since the introduction of the nominee program, immigration to Manitoba has increased by 250 per cent. The increase in Winnipeg has been staggering. In the years 1996-2000, the city saw 15,809 new immigrants. In just one year, 2007-2008, it attracted 16,585 immigrants. Equally as important, 78 per cent stay in Manitoba, which is a significant improvement over the 1980s, when the retention rate was less than 50 per cent. Increased immigration ended Manitoba's population stagnation. It now enjoys consistently positive net migration.

A survey of nominee-program immigrants shows promising results -- 75 per cent have never experienced involuntary unemployment, 85 per cent were employed and seven per cent were in school. While the average annual household income of $49,066 for participants is lower than the provincial average of $60,242, they are making enough money to live reasonably well and pay provincial and municipal taxes.

Of course, mass immigration often creates challenges. Aside from the need for immigrants to find jobs, they also often require language training and educational upgrading to meet certification levels for their professions.

However, the success of the program shows that participants mostly were able to overcome these difficulties. Some of this likely can be attributed to the fact that immigrants of similar backgrounds tend to cluster.

The primary examples of these two patterns are the concentration of Filipino immigrants in Winnipeg and the large number of Mennonites from Germany, Mexico, and South America who integrated into existing Mennonite communities. This can be important, since it allows for them to develop or take advantage of informal support networks. Living in a community with speakers of the same language makes it easier for immigrants to integrate into the community, and can help with finding employment.

Immigration is often a source of innovation. Recent studies have shown that immigrant entrepreneurs in America have created more jobs for existing Americans than for other immigrants. More people moving to Detroit would also mean more customers for its service industry. And by paying property taxes, they would help to keep the city government afloat. Perhaps the most important benefit would be that more people would make the city safer -- criminals hate witnesses.

Recently, Detroit experienced an influx of Latino and Muslim immigration. Despite the stigma attached to these groups by many Americans, anecdotal evidence suggests that they have been a boon. According to the Immigration Policy Center, Arab-American employment now contributes $7.7 billion to the Detroit metro economy and provides $544 million in tax revenue to the state. They now support over 140,000 jobs in the city.

Latino immigrants are credited with helping revitalize Southwest Detroit, which saw $200 million of investments between 1993 and 2008, and the area's population grew by nearly seven per cent between 1990 and 2000 even as most of the city declined. Detroit is home to nearly 50,000 Latinos, up from fewer than 20,000 in 1990.

For those who claim immigrants take American jobs, the evidence suggests the opposite.

Despite the fact that immigrants have lower average wages than non-immigrants, they manage to have a disproportionate economic impact in many cities, Detroit being a good a example. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrants contribute 1.3 times as much to the Detroit economy per capita as non-immigrants. This means they disproportionately create jobs and contribute to the tax base.

Simply allowing anyone and everyone to immigrate to Detroit or anywhere else in America is a political non-starter. Also, the dire budgetary situation facing Detroit and the state of Michigan means that neither can afford to allow new immigrants to become economic liabilities. After all, the justification for this program is to replace the tax base and reduce crime, not to create a new underclass. Though there would certainly be some hiccups, evidence in Manitoba could help to revitalize both Detroit and Michigan. Failure to undertake a revitalization strategy will make a shrinking strategy inevitable. Given the two choices, revitalization seems vastly preferable.

Published in the Winnepeg Free Press | Read Article