The Knight Foundation has announced the finalists for this year’s Knight Cities Challenge–and the League’s idea – “Permit Corps” – Â is among them! Â With over 4,500 ideas submitted in the first round, the 158 finalists who have been invited to submit full proposals include 20 finalists from Detroit. Â (We’re tied with Philadelphia for the largest number of finalists.)
The Permit Corps would beÂ an intern or fellowship program that would place graduate students in a few neighborhoods in Detroit. They would serve as a combination of technical expert and patient advocate, helping residents and small business owners get projects done.
Maybe a small business owner needs a site plan to show zoning compliance for an expansion:Â anÂ urban planning student from Wayne State or an architecture student from University of Detroit Mercy could help navigate the zoning ordinance and draft the site plan showing the relevant information. Perhaps a resident wants to renovate their home in a historic district: Eastern Michigan University has one of the country’s leading historic preservation programs, and a student from that program could helpÂ the resident evaluate their options and put together materials for the Historic District Commission. Maybe a Spanish-speaking resident wants help filling out permits in English–there are any number of ways thatÂ the Permit Corps might be able to help neighborhood residents take care of the paperwork so that they can take care of their projects, as well as easing the burden on city staff.
We’ve primarily targeted the Challenge’sÂ goal of “expand economic opportunity” with this proposal: by providing technical capacity to neighborhood residents. We would complement the city’s own efforts to streamline their internal functionsÂ and broaden access to the formal process.
This idea stems in part from my own time in Ypsilanti City Hall, helping people through various city, county, and state permitting processes: no matter how much a city has done to make its processes easy, the zoning ordinance is still a legal document, and presenting to the Planning Commission orÂ Historic District Commission canÂ still be intimidating to people.
And that’s why the League chose to dive into the Challenge with this idea–we know we can’t possibly help every person who’s trying to make something happen in their piece of Detroit, but we hope to model a new interaction between residents and city processes that can be adopted not justÂ across Detroit but in other Knight Cities–or by our communities across the state.