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Residency Rules: The Detroit Experience

An abandoned home in Detroit
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The debate over where city of Milwaukee employees are allowed to live takes center stage at the state Capitol Tuesday. A Senate committee will hold a public hearing on a bill that would do away with the requirement that Milwaukee police officers and fire fighters reside within the city limits. Gov. Scott Walker’s budget would also scrap the residency rule for Milwaukee’s 6,000 public school teachers. More than a decade ago, state lawmakers in Michigan made a similar move, giving city of Detroit workers the freedom to live wherever they want. WUWM’s Erin Toner spoke with a few people about how those changes have impacted the Motor City.

We’re all pretty familiar with Detroit’s story – its rise in the 50s and 60s as an automotive powerhouse, and its fall ever since then as manufacturing jobs vanished. Over the past 50 years, Detroit has lost half its population – more than a million people. That exodus is portrayed in familiar images of empty downtown skyscrapers and decaying neighborhoods.

Marsha Bruhn has watched it all happen. For 35 years, she’s lived in North Rosedale Park, a tight-knit Detroit neighborhood of 1,700 stately brick homes.

“It is such a mix, really. We do have teachers, public officials, one of the city council members lives in the neighborhood and there are people who work for our utility company, Detroit Edison, city employees, I worked for the city myself for 30 years,” Bruhn says.

Bruhn says historically, middle-class Detroiters sought to live in North Rosedale Park when they outgrew their starter homes and could afford something bigger and nicer. But that’s been slowly changing since the year 2000, when the Michigan Legislature scrapped the requirement that Detroit city employees live in Detroit. Bruhn says now, some public workers who might otherwise have sought to move their families to North Rosedale Park, look outside the city. She says 10 years ago, 2 percent of the homes in her neighborhood were vacant. Now around 12 percent are. She says some people walked away from homes they could not sell, or the bank took them away.

“I’ve had to deal with this myself. I have a very lovely Tudor home and there was a home next door to me that was vacant and was vacant for several years, owned by an investor. People would try to break into the house. They stole some of the pipes. There was a swimming pool in the backyard, which was neglected, and it was filled with water and we were worried about mosquitoes and eventually I bought the house,” Bruhn says.

Bruhn says she rehabbed the house and sold it to some great new neighbors. So, one problem solved. But the house on the other side also has been vacant for years. She cuts the grass, trims the bushes and puts flowers out front to make it look like someone lives there. Still, squatters moved in last summer.

“Vacant houses are a continuing, blighting influence on the neighborhood. Yes, if I went to sell my house and people looked next door…”

And, Bruhn says, property values have dropped. Her neighborhood’s story is the scenario some people in Milwaukee fear would happen here if teachers, police officers, fire fighters and other city workers are allowed to live anywhere. Right now, areas in Milwaukee where a lot of public employees live – mainly to the far north and far south – are considered some of the safest and well-kept places in town.

Patrick Anderson is CEO of the Michigan-based Anderson Economic Group. He has studied the impacts of lifting Detroit’s residency rule.

“Residency laws have some legitimacy in terms of their purposes for teachers, for policemen, for firefighters because it’s a way of saying we want you to live in the community that you’re serving and we are as taxpayers, paying your salary so we are making that as a condition of your employment. There’s a downside to that, however, it gives people the impression that you are trying to fence them in and Americans do not want, and don’t have to be fenced in,” Anderson says.

Today, more than half of Detroit’s police officers live outside the city – although Anderson says even when the residency rule was in place, many already had homes in the suburbs, but rented apartments in the city.

Kurt Metzger is director of the research group, Data Driven Detroit. He says Detroit has been hemorrhaging residents for years for myriad reasons.

“Taxes are higher. Insurance rates are much higher. There certainly have been issues around service delivery and public safety and just basic quality-of-life issues, such as lack of grocery stores and other amenities,” Metzger says.

Detroit’s experience is cited by some who want Milwaukee to maintain its long-standing residency requirement, including Mayor Tom Barrett. He has warned that a change could turn Milwaukee into a Detroit by ruining the city’s tax base, and Police Chief Ed Flynn worries about his officers being seen as “outsiders.”

Gov. Walker and Republicans in the Senate claim the move could actually improve education in Milwaukee, and create a larger pool of qualified candidates for city jobs.