Rashida Tlaib: Life in Detroit

The first part of my conversation with State Representative Rashida Tlaib focused on her experience as a female political leader.  Part two is about the district she represents.  For those who are unfamiliar with her background, Rashida was born and raised in Detroit.  She comes from a huge family – she is the oldest of 14!  She currently lives in Southwest with her husband and two boys.  She’s an attorney, social activist and fabulous to talk with.  Her natural instinct to help others was most recently demonstrated in an email she sent me about the Center for Progressive Leadership.  I’m flattered she thought of me and inspired to follow her lead in public service. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Rashida and hope to do so again in the future.

I’ve heard you speak on the friction between legislators who represent rural areas verses urban. With all the positive energy in Detroit right now, have you noticed a change in attitude?

There seems to have been a shift with the bankruptcy.  I don’t know if it’s the Detroit art that united them on this issue but there seems to have been a commitment by some of them.  There is still a significant amount of rural reps who did not support the bankruptcy deal and it was primarily because they didn’t want to seem too ‘pro-Detroit’.  The issue going on with that [the art] has some-what created a unity between republicans and democrats but I think it’s because they understand if Detroit fails, the whole state does. So I think it’s somewhat a selfish reason – to make sure their community is protected and knowing that there is an integral connection. I think that message has been resonating a lot more these past couple years.

You are very involved in the city and have a great relationship with your constituents, what are the Detroit victories people don’t hear about?
The energy around block clubs and starting block clubs. Detroit use to be known – nationally – having 70% home-ownership.  We were envied. Now I believe it’s about 60% renters and 40% home-ownership – you should verify that.* It’s completely changed, there’s a shift and we feel it.  We use to have some of the most active, aggressive home-ownership groups.  A group of residents who would come together to address crime or beautify a park. Now the challenges are ten times more than the past but there’s a new energy around strengthening block clubs and neighborhoods organizations. I think that’s something no one is really talking about. 
Five years ago Springdale-Woodmere took down a drug dealer.  It took them two years but they did. [They have been] able to increase home-ownership, to hold landlords accountable, they received over $7,000 in grants for beautification, they put up a sign up saying, “Welcome to Springdale-Woodmere Blockclub”, they do patrolling. Those are huge successes. 
We go to the Charlevoix Village Association  and they have a great passion around lighting: ‘We need lighting’ and ‘This is why we deserve lighting”.  I couldn’t believe it when the block club president asked me, ‘Rashida could you do a training and tell us what city council members are responsible for? What are state reps responsible for? We want to understand it better.’  They want to hold them accountable. All the members that were there were like, ‘Yeah, teach us Rashida. We want to know what they’re suppose to be doing so we can make sure they’re doing their job.’ I think that is a huge success and to me these residents are even more important than the mayor.

What’s the biggest challenge facing Detroit? 
The crisis going on with foreclosure is going to get worse.  I think people think of bank foreclosure only but I think of the tax foreclosure in Wayne County and Detroit really being the heart of it.  I heard a statistic that Wayne County has ten times more tax foreclosure than anywhere in the country.  That Detroit is at 40,000 and that number is going to double in two to four years if we don’t address it.  
We need to ask Wayne County and the state legislature to have more discretion to help these families stay in their home.  These are property taxes, these need to be paid but what happens after a years is that there is interest, there is penalties and then it digs and digs deeps.  The budget plans they are coming up with don’t work – you have to put 21% down.  It doesn’t work for what we’re going through economically in this city. I would never want anyone to get off on property taxes and let me tell you my residents have a lot of pride. They want to pay but they don’t want to pay with the penalty or the interest, they want someone to work with them. If they can afford $100 a month for a 5 year period, let’s do it.  If they are able to at least show in a year that they can get back on track, let’s do it. 

I think a lot of the tax foreclosure crisis stems from the high unemployment rate.  If we’re not going to have a surge of jobs for our residents then I don’t think you’re going to see blight go away or scrapping go away or the number of things we see everyday from crime. [These promblems] aren’t going to go away until we provide a quality of life for our residents. And that’s not going to happen without the jobs. We still have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.  I heard it’s over 25% right now.**

I recently talked to a realtor and she said there will be 100,000 tax foreclosures in Wayne County next year.

They only the capacity to do 40,000. You know what’s so sad is that they go on the auction.  Someone is at home in DC or Chicago and they are able to bid on these homes that have probably been in families for generations.  If it is someone who walked away – fine. But if there is a family living in the home, we need to be able to work with them. If it is job training or helping them find a job. I feel like we get really lazy about how to address these issues. We think one shoe fits everybody: ‘Let’s foreclose everyone the same way’. No I think there is a way to make exceptions and create programs that help those families that maybe had a really rough one year but can’t seem to catch up because of the 18% interest rate. 
There is an interesting blend of cooperation in the city right now: federal, state, and city government, big business, start-ups, non-profit organizations and community groups.  Do you think it’s a practical balance or would you like to see one group step ahead of the pack?
I think for the past 20 years some of the bigger corporations have been spoiled by the culture that has been created in the City of Detroit, where we want them to be here but they won’t be here unless we give them some sort of huge tax break or they don’t have to come up with a community benefits agreement. ‘Hey state can you create mechanisms so I can build a hockey stadium on your back, and take 18 million away from classrooms?’ – which is exactly what just happened
I grew up with the Illitches and now my kids are going to grow up with Dan Gilbert as ‘The Guy.’ But you see a difference with Dan Gilbert. He’s helping to support a blight taskforce. He hasn’t come to the state – yet [knock on wood] – for a handout and I respect that. 
Marathon expanded and they got a tremendous tax break to employ 51% of Detroiters and they only hired 7 people but we can’t get our money back.  There needs to be that balance that if you’re going to grow your business and make huge amounts of money it can’t be on the backs of the residents.  They’re not going to succeed fully if neighborhoods are falling apart and we’re not going to have enough police presence.  
With the hockey stadium, my residents in Midtown ask, ‘Is Illitch going to be able to hire secondary employment to do policing?’ Do you know what Olympia Entertainment said to them? ‘No, that’s Detroit’s job, not our job.’ Well you just took a lot of our tax dollars. It makes no sense. But I don’t think Dan Gilbert would have said that. What I hope is happening is that Dan Gilbert is raising the bar. I will change my mind if he does ask for a handout – I’ll be very upset. It’s funny because I told his people, ‘I love that you’re not coming for a tax abatement to do the work that you’re doing now’. I think there is room for someone like that. As long as he’s doing it in a fair way, he’s going to continue to be welcomed. I can’t believe the tremendous role his people played in scrap metal theft – they still are – they want reform in scrap metal theft. I don’t hear Illitch talking about that.  
I’m not picking on him [Illitch], I’m just using him as an example. He got a rolling of the red carpet and now that we need him, I don’t think he’s there for us. Building a hockey stadium is not going to save us and it’s hard for me to understand why he would ask for a hand out to build it. He could have built it on his own and everybody knows that. Dan Gilbert cares about making money but he also cares about bringing back Detroit and really being part of it.  It doesn’t entail him trying to get a hand out and I respect that so much.
You were raised in the city and are raising kids in the city. What do you want their Detroit experience to be?
I want them to experience diversity. I feel blessed that I went to school with African-Americans, Latinos, first generation Polish… I went to school with 20 different ethnicities and I want them to grow up with that. I also want them to feel this sense of being welcomed. I always worry because even when I run for office people ask, ‘Where are you from?’ There is this assumption that I wasn’t born here. I hope that when they grow up they don’t have to validate that they are from the city.  
Finally, what do you like to do in Detroit?
I love, love, love the riverfront. Being from Southwest Detroit, we’re on the riverfront even though we have a lot of industry. I took my kids down when they opened the West Riverfront. I love that I can have a cool relationship with the water. People don’t think of us as a water community but we are. 
I love being part of community action events in Detroit. Yeah it might be laying in the street but I love that stuff. A lot of movements in our country were born here. I love being part of the activism and rich culture.

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