Dearborn’s tree-lined streets are home to a variety of people from different backgrounds, but the city’s reputation as a socially and economically accessible hamlet has failed to draw large numbers of a surprising group: Its own employees.
Public employees–who once overwhelmingly lived in the communities where they worked–have slowly filtered out since in-residence laws were taken off the books in the 1990s.
But some Dearborn officials would like to see residency laws return in an effort to increase employee support of the city.
“I am a proponent of requiring all employees to live in the municipality where they live,” said Dearborn City Council President Thomas Tafelski. “We pay (employee) salaries and pensions, and employees are well-compensated. I think we should try to get some of that back.”
Mayor Jack O’Reilly also said he is in support of residency requirements, but said a said the passage of an in-residence law the one signed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in 2011 is unlikely.
“I think employees should live here,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s likely to get support in Lansing. As mayor, I have to focus on things that we can get done; I don’t think we’re going to see a change any time soon.”
Dearborn for Work, Not Home
Though the city does not have data on hand about exactly how many employees live within Dearborn, the numbers are low. Interestingly, the likelihood that an employee lives in the city goes up if they are among middle- to lower-wage workers, said O’Reilly.
Meanwhile, the city has around 3,500 vacant homes, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
It’s difficult to determine the reason more employees don’t live within the city. Unlike some communities, housing prices in Dearborn vary from very expensive to very affordable.
Joey Thorington, the president of the Dearborn Firefighters union, said that has not always been the case.
“When I hired into the department 14 years ago, I looked for a house in Dearborn for a long time,” he said. “But it was at the peak of the high housing market and I couldn’t afford a house that could accommodate a family at that time.
"Today it would be a lot different."
He added that many firefighters that hired into the department from another job were already homeowners, and now, they’re suffering from house-lock.
“A lot of firefighters have told me they can’t sell their homes; they’re upside down and sideways on their mortgage, and there’s no end in sight,” he said. “A lot of the younger guys–who are looking for a house for the first time, are more interested in moving into the city because of what’s available, and they’re just starting out.”
Gregg Allgeier, the president of union, said residency does not mean an employee would show more commitment to the city merely by living in it, and that a law requiring residency is prohibitive.
“It’s a matter of choice,” he said. “There are officers themselves that have not grown up choose here that choose to live elsewhere. Many police officers are not comfortable living where they work ... it doesn’t mean they are not community-oriented; a desire to do good policing doesn’t come from living there.”
Incentives and Lures
Currently, there are some incentives in place to lure employees back to the city.
O’Reilly said a program that gives employees financial assistance in purchasing foreclosed homes acquired by the city and brought up to code has received interest, and that employees are getting pre-qualified to make purchases.
Tafelski said the city in and of itself should be a catalyst for residency.
“We have excellent amenities," he said, "and there’s no reason anyone shouldn’t want to live here."