Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A New Homestead Act - A Tale of Two Cities

Detroit and New Orleans. Two cities alike in so many ways. Both owe their origins to the French who settled the two locations because of their control of their respective waterways, and the trade that flowed through them. Both cities have more recently experienced "white flight" leaving behind an impoverished underclass and a political class who have excelled only in the art of corruption.

Now the two cities share an additional distinction. The massive depopulation of their citizenry.

One was sudden. Estimates suggest that up to 80% of the home in New Orleans have been destroyed or have otherwise become uninhabitable because of Hurricane Katrina, leaving one million residents of the Big Easy displaced and homeless.

The other decline was more gradual. Detroit has lost more than half its population since its heyday in the 1950's. The people who remain are mostly black -- 83 percent -- and mostly working class, with 30 percent of the population living below the poverty line according to the US Census Bureau In fact, the flight from Detroit has resulted in a greater population decline than was experienced by 14th century Europe during the height of the Black Death when as many as 25% of all villages were depopulated.

While the two cities share so much in common, a crucial difference in their respective plights may offer hope for both the displaced populace of New Orleans and the depressed economic fortunes of the Motor City. According to the blog "Turn":

"Detroit's fleeing businesses and homeowners have left behind about 36 square miles (58 square kilometers) of vacant land. That's roughly the size of San Francisco and about a quarter of Detroit's total land mass. Professor Stephen Vogel at the University of Detroit-Mercy has proposed turning these swaths of abandoned land in Detroit into farmland. Others disagree, noting that many of the abandoned homes have solid foundations which could be repaired with proper attention."
Regardless, the availability of large tracts of abandoned homes and land in Detroit offers a permanent solution for the diaspora from New Orleans. As an immediate remedy for the homeless displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Detroit should enact its own Homestead Ordinance patterned after the Federal Homestead Act of 1862, which provided 160 acres of public land free of charge (except for a small filing fee) to anyone either 21 years of age or head of a family, a citizen or person who had filed for citizenship, who had lived on and cultivated the land for at least five years. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, more than 80 million acres had been claimed by homesteaders.

Likewise, a Motor City Homestead Act of 2005 could make vast areas of currently abandoned land in Detroit available to those persons who can demonstrate they were residents of New Orleans displaced by Hurricane Katrina. If after five years, the new residents of Detroit were able to demonstrate they had made improvements to their property by bringing the property up to code, the residents would be granted title at no additional cost.

The new residents of Detroit would find a city much like the one they left (weather excepted) and Detroit would have the benefits of an influx of new residents, a substantial addition to its tax rolls, and perhaps even a much needed attitude adjustment reflecting the easy going New Orleans spirit.

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