Immigration Can Be an Antidote to Urban Decay: Revitalization strategy preferable to shrinking one

Commentary, Immigration, Steve Lafleur


Detroit is generally regarded as the poster child for urban decay. The city lost 25% of its population between 2000-2010, and over half its population since 1950. Over 90,000 houses are abandoned, and many neighborhoods are empty. 
The city is burdened with maintaining crumbling infrastructure that was built to accommodate double the city’s population. Policing such a sparsely populated city presents major challenges. To deal with this, many have proposed “shrinking” the city. This means bulldozing entire city areas, and relocating existing residents. Whereas politicians normally promise to build, Mayor Dave Bing has pledged to knock down 10,000 structures during his first term. In the past, such slum clearances lead to opposition from urbanists like Jane Jacobs, who argued that top down urban revitalization does more harm than good. Even though Jacobs is revered by planners, shrinking the city has met with little opposition. Frankly, unless Detroit sees a major population surge, shrinking the city may be necessary. 
The problem with Detroit is that not enough Americans want to live there. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently mused about repopulating Detroit with immigrants. Though he didn’t offer a formal proposal, the idea makes sense. Many immigrants would love to live there. Detroit could follow Winnipeg’s immigration success in stabilizing its population, and reversing the city’s decline through immigration. 
Between 1971-1996, Winnipeg grew by roughly 0.6% per year. Like many North American cities, all of the growth was in the suburbs. In fact, the population of Downtown Winnipeg shrunk by 23.25% during that period. Though the decline was not as pronounced as Detroit’s, the causes and effects were similar. Manufacturing declined, people moved to the suburbs, and much of the population left for more entrepreneurial cities. 
Here’s how Winnipeg turned things around.
Manitoba did not have a reputation as the most attractive place for new immigrants to settle. Only 1.8% of immigrants to Canada settled in the province between 1996-2000. In 1998, Manitoba introduced the Provincial Nominee Program, which allowed the province to recruit immigrants over and above federal immigration quotas. Soon after the introduction of the nominee program, immigration to the province increased by 250%, the majority of whom went to Winnipeg. Increased immigration ended Manitoba’s population decline, and the province now enjoys consistently positive net migration. Key to the program’s success, 78% of Manitoba immigrants stay in the province.
A survey of participants in the nominee program shows promising results. Three quarters of participants surveyed have never experienced involuntary unemployment; 85% were employed, and 7% 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 earning enough to live reasonably well, and do contribute to the tax base.
Recently, Detroit too has experienced economic benefits from two groups of immigrants: Arabs and Latinos.  Arab American employment now contributes $7.7 billion to the city’s economy, and provides $544 million in tax revenue to the state. They now support over 140,000 jobs in the city. Latino immigrants are being credited with helping to revitalize Southwest Detroit, which saw $200 million of investments between 1993-2008, and the area’s population grew by nearly 7% between 1990-2000 even as most of the city declined. The City is now home to nearly 50,000 Latinos, up from under 20,000 in 1990.   
As for the perception that immigrants take American jobs, evidence suggests the opposite. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrants contribute 1.3 times as much to the economy per capita as non-immigrants in Detroit. This means, among other things, they disproportionately create jobs and contribute to the tax base.   
Creating a targeted immigration program to rescue decaying American cities would require close co-operation between municipal, state, and federal governments. The US federal government could introduce a new visa category aimed at attracting immigrants to declining American cities. To avoid inevitable financial concerns about immigration, some mechanism should be introduced to ensure that immigrants have the capacity to sustain themselves, such as a requirement to purchase property or enter into a long term lease with a substantive deposit. More immigrants would mean more tax dollars for the cash strapped city and state.  It’s a win-win situation.