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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2006

A return for Detroit?

The Motor City is showing signs of a modest comeback with an upturn in new housing permits. Although it's too soon to declare the new housing starts a renaissance, when a long-decaying urban area beats out other communities in a seven-county region after a 20-year low, it demands attention.

Some might say it's presumptuous to label Detroit as "competitive and attractive" when stacked against the suburbs. Detroit has not exactly been the image of fashionable urban living, not with its reputations of high crime and high unemployment, and a mayor whose style has been the butt of jokes.

But that's how Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, explains the upswing in housing permits.

For a city of 895,000 to have issued 1,039 new home building permits in 2005 isn't all that remarkable. However, that's an 11 percent increase over the previous year, and it enabled Detroit to surpass the previously fast-booming Macomb and Canton townships.

Compared to 2004, the region expects a 20 percent drop in housing permits, although that doesn't apply to Detroit and 50 other communities, which expect to experience an increase in permits.

The curious want to know why the surge in housing permits in Detroit, especially when the market elsewhere in the region is lagging. Well, Motown has a revitalized downtown, and was host to the most recent Super Bowl and baseball All-Star game.

And whether it is because of or despite Mayor Kwame Kirkpatrick's narrow victory for a second term last fall, the city is drawing young people who want an urban living lifestyle. The interest in affordable downtown lofts is helping the growth explosion, and with that trend is the hope that these new urban dwellers will attract other businesses to provide the amenities for comfortable city living.

But a little caution is in order before signing on to "buy your property now" because "it's going to pop," as George Jackson, the head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., suggests.

There may be a thousand new housing starts, but there are far more vacant buildings, and Detroit's population is still shrinking by about a thousand people a month. Plus, the schools are a mess, and families with children are still not choosing to relocate in Detroit.

Far more needs to happen before Detroit is truly "back." Nevertheless, these numbers provide a tiny glimmer of hope and, after decades of despair, that is welcome.



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