Detroit just filed for bankruptcy. Here’s how it got there.

July 18, 2013

On Thursday, the city of Detroit filed for bankruptcy — the largest city in the United States ever to do so.


(Carlos Osorio/AP)

To get a better sense of just how Detroit got into such dire financial straits, it's worth browsing through this May report on the city's finances and this "Proposal for Creditors" from June. Detroit's emergency manager Kevyn Orr laid out all the problems and economic headwinds facing the city. For instance:

Since 2000, Detroit's population has declined 26 percent. There are now just 706,000 people in the city, way down from 1.85 million during its industrial heyday in 1950.

— The official unemployment is now 18.6 percent, and fewer than half of the city's residents over the age of 16 are working. Per capita income is an extremely low $15,261 a year, which means there's not all that much tax revenue pouring in.

— Low tax revenue, in turn, means that city services are suffering. Detroit has the highest crime rate of any major city, and fewer than 10 percent of crimes get solved. The average response time for an emergency call is 58 minutes. Some 78,000 buildings are abandoned or blighted and there are an estimated 12,000 fires every year. About 40 percent of the city's streetlights don't work.

— High crime and blight are driving even more residents out of the city. It's also driving down property values, which means many residents have stopped paying property taxes. The city collected about 68 percent of the property taxes owed in 2011. Both of those things put a further strain on Detroit's finances.

— Detroit is sagging under decades of bad governance. “The city’s operations have become dysfunctional and wasteful after years of budgetary restrictions, mismanagement, crippling operational practices and, in some cases, indifference or corruption,” Orr wrote in May. “Outdated policies, work practices, procedures and systems must be improved consistent with best practices of 21st-century government.” (Detroit has been a one-party city run by Democrats since 1962.)

— Meanwhile, Detroit owes around $18.5 billion to its creditors. That includes about $6 billion in health-care and life insurance obligations, plus roughly $3.5 billion in pension costs racked up over the years. Given its ever-worsening economic slide, Detroit was in no position to pay off all its obligations.

Over the past few months, Orr has tried to convince the city's various creditors, including the city's unions and pension boards, to take far less than they were owed in order to restructure the city's finances (in some cases, pennies on the dollar). But he was unsuccessful, so now the city is filing for bankruptcy protection.

The Detroit Free Press explains the next steps here: "The filing begins a 30- to 90-day period that will determine whether the city is eligible for Chapter 9 protection and define how many claimants might compete for the limited settlement resources that Detroit has to offer. The bankruptcy petition would seek protection from creditors and unions who are renegotiating $18.5 billion in debt and other liabilities."

Further reading:

--My colleague Michael Fletcher has much more on the Detroit bankruptcy.

--A look at the various arguments within Detroit over which creditors should get hit hardest. "But city retirees, facing the prospect of sharply reduced benefits whether in bankruptcy or under Detroit’s restructuring proposal, think they stand squarely on the moral high ground because despite the poverty of many current and retired members, they have already offered big concessions."

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