If you owned a home in Detroit over the past decade, you had more than a one in three chance of being pulled into foreclosure. It might not be because you failed to pay your mortgage, and it could happen even if you owned your home outright. Over-inflated property taxes and inflexible state laws have created a cycle of foreclosures and blight in the heart of a once-great city.
Michigan’s housing politics, where unseen forces from on high can cripple residents’ ability to survive and prosper, mirror the hardened geographic and racial divisions that have tugged at the fabric of democracy in the state. We all know the stories: the Flint lead crisis, “right-to-work” laws undermining collective bargaining, unconscionable water shut-offs in Detroit, armies of unelected emergency managers taking control of majority-black cities and school districts.
Abdul El-Sayed, running to become the first Muslim-American governor in US history, may initially seem an unlikely figure to bridge Michigan’s divides—until you hear his story. His father immigrated from Egypt in the 1970s. His white Christian stepmother hails from rural, thinly populated Gratiot County, right in the center of the state. Members of his family voted for Trump, while others fear the impact of his policies on Muslims like them.
On Monday, El-Sayed, a medical doctor and the former director of Detroit’s health department, released an urban agenda that highlights affordable housing as the key to getting Michigan’s cities back on track. El-Sayed is certainly running to the left of the current Democratic gubernatorial front-runner, former state Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer. But it’s his bid to revive Michigan’s historic democracy deficit that should draw real interest.
El-Sayed stresses the commonality of the working class’ shared challenges—whether urban or rural—while endorsing a progressive agenda to end the moral tragedies of suppression and predation. “All of us define ourselves by where we live,” El-Sayed told me in an interview. “It’s our safe space to retreat to. When you think of the rate of foreclosure in Detroit in owned housing, and rate of eviction in rental housing, you’re asking people to grow without roots.”