It’s easy to open up your favorite social media app and think that everyone is thinking a certain way. It doesn’t matter the topic. in our always connected world, whether it’s about some national story or something in town, we’ve all seen it.

The pile on with comments. But in my mind, that isn’t the greatest indicator of what people really think.

A friend of mine called it “roll and scroll,” where a lot of people will see something going a certain way, roll their eyes, and scroll on instead of getting into it. So how do we find out what Detroiters are really thinking?

What brings Detroit voters to the polls? What are their top priorities for local elected officials?

You ask them. But to do it right, it requires expertise and expense.

So when I saw that Outlier Media had commissioned the Detroit Metro Area Communities Study to survey 1,100 of our citizens? My ears perked up.

To unpack the findings, Sarah Alvarez, the founder and editor in chief of Outlier Media joined me in our studio at TechTown.

Below you'll find a video and lightly edited transcript of the conversation, and if you want to follow our podcast you can on Apple, Spotify, or download the mp3 here.

Link to the full survey results to follow along:

Here's a full transcript of the podcast conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

Jer: Joining me here at the table at TechTown is Sarah Alvarez. She is the founder and editor in chief of Outlier Media and first time on Daily Detroit. Welcome to Daily Detroit!

Sarah Alvarez: Thank you for having me!

Jer: Absolutely!

So I wanted to talk to you because you have this amazing survey that's come together, and I tell people you can have all the ideas you want, but it's really important to ask people, and you asked a lot of people about important questions. So why don't we talk about this survey, the methodology and why you did this?

Sarah Alvarez: I think, especially as news organizations, the way that many news organizations used to kind of try to figure out what to cover was just to look around and see, well, what's happening. And what do we think is important? But that's not actually the way that you're going to get information into the hands of people who need it most. Because we, as news, as journalists, whatever, we don't really know what people need and where people are.

So we know where they live, but we don't know what are they thinking about? What do they not know about?

And so that means that you're using all of these resources to produce information maybe based on bad data. And the only way to fix that is to go out and ask people what they're struggling with, what they care about, and where they are.

And so I think that Detroit, when we're thinking about election seasons, there is a lot of attention on Detroit because it's a very important place – electorally. And yet, we don't have good information about why people vote, how many people vote, what they care about.

And if we don't have that, we don't know how to get people the answers that they want. So we asked, 1100 people in Detroit, ah, all across Detroit, a representative sample of the city, what they were thinking about when it comes to these issues.

Jer: Well, and that sampling is so important, and that polling, so important. I remember when I started my career at Channel 4, almost 30 years ago, polling was like a much more regular thing – samples, surveys. And that has really gone away on a local level.

Sarah Alvarez: It's expensive! It's expensive. And I think that that's why people don't do it. And, we worked with the University of Michigan, to do this survey. And we really – it's very important to us that the people who participate in the surveys that we do are paid. And so all of these participants were compensated for their time. And, that's what makes it so expensive, but it is worth it. And we were able to get a grant to do it.

Jer: Yeah. Cause some surveys I see, even about the whole state of Michigan, they will ask 600 people in a state of millions. And to see that ratio, you need a good sample size. But 1,100 out of. And this was city of Detroit focused, correct?

Sarah Alvarez: Only in the city, yeah.

Jer: So the city is over 600,000 people (according to) the census, the numbers, whatever. But that's a really good sample size for this kind of stuff.

What are a couple of key findings that right away stood out for you? For me, one thing going through the data I want to talk about is that our voter turnout rates are a lot better than I think, reported. And let's maybe unpack that a little bit.

Sarah Alvarez: I thought so, too. And so when we first wanted to do this survey, I was definitely coming at it from a place of concern. I was worried that voter turnout rates are so low in local elections. And I was looking and seeing that, you know, in federal elections, we had, like, about 50% of voter turnout in 2020. And then in the congressional election, it went back down.

So I was worried about that. And I was also wondering, are people disengaged from just the politics and just voting, or are they disengaged from their community? Because those are two different things, and it's really important to understand.

So, with voter turnout in this survey, first of all, 82% of this sample said they are registered at their current address. So that's a lot of registered voters, but it's not everybody. And 70% of our samples said that they were definitely going to vote in this upcoming election. And I saw that and I (thought), that does not track. That does not track with the voter turnout statistics that we see. So what's going on here?

And it's interesting, I talked to Daniel Baxter, he's an election administrator for the city of Detroit, and he's been around for a long time. And I said, what's happening here?

I also noticed, when I was doing some fact checking, that our voter – our number of registered voters in the city of Detroit is actually higher than the number of adults that live in the city of Detroit. And I was like – that seems concerning.

Jer: And there's been a lot of stories nationally about voter rolls and misinformation around it, all kinds of stuff. So it's important to unpack this.

Sarah Alvarez: It is really important to unpack it. And so I did talk to Daniel Baxter, and what he said is that in the 1990s, there were some efforts to take people off the voter rolls if they hadn't participated in elections recently.

And that's, when you think about it, in a democracy, that's not really fair. Whether or not you show up to vote shouldn't determine whether or not you can vote. so there was a move in the 1990s to protect the voter rolls and to make it much more difficult to, what we call, "purge the voter rolls."

So now there's a system that is outlined in federal law about how what the process that every state has to go through in order to take people off. When people pass away, they will get taken off the voter roll the next month. But when people move, it's going to take years to get them off the voter rolls. And as you know, Detroit has had a lot of people move.

Jer: Whether it's outside of the city or, even, within it

Sarah Alvarez: Right. But mostly outside. So right now, we have about 513,000 registered voters in the city of Detroit. That, again, is more than we have than the number of adults in the city of Detroit. But that doesn't – The number of registered voters is different from the number of likely voters.

So when you look at a 50% turnout rate, and it's 50% of registered voters, that's actually really good, because the number of adults in the city is lower than the number of registered voters.

And so that means a 50% turnout is, like, closer to 65% – 70% of all adults in the city of Detroit are turning out in elections. And that's pretty incredible. That is a real marker of civic health.

Jer: For sure! And I think that people have this idea that Detroiters are checked out. And I know I kind of looked at the data and I maybe thought some of that myself.

But at the end of the day, part of choosing to live in Detroit, and, if you're gonna stay here, is being involved in the community. And you saw a lot of interesting numbers around that and data points.

Sarah Alvarez: We did. First of all, a lot of people did say that they do want to stay in the community, despite how difficult it can be sometimes. To afford the city, to navigate the city. To deal with, the lack of amenities, in terms of education. People do want to stay here.

The other thing that we found out is that a majority of people feel like their priorities are the same as their neighbors, or very closely aligned with their neighbors. So, again, that's a really interesting thing to me that says we have a lot of cohesion in our neighborhoods, and we want the same things.

Unfortunately, Detroiters also said that, despite that, they feel like local officials don't care about what they want and don't listen to what they want.

Jer: I hear that all the time. I'll be very honest. In my inbox, what I hear is, "Hey, there's this very specific neighborhood thing," or "there's this way, that they want to approach things in the city," or, "I'm seeing neighborhoods deploy this way," and they feel very disconnected. And that isn't just the mayor's office, it's kind of across the board.

Sarah Alvarez: Yeah. We asked, how do you feel about local officials? How much do you feel local officials care about what you want? And a majority of Detroiters said that local officials care just a little bit about what they want.

And then 16% said they don't care at all.

But I do think Detroiters, we know this to be true just in living in the city. But also what Detroiters told us is that they count on themselves to get stuff done. 49% of Detroiters that we talked to have in the last year talked to other neighbors about getting something done – have contacted officials, have attended meetings, have volunteered. A quarter of our sample has volunteered in the last year.

Jer: I mean, I've salted my own street before.

Sarah Alvarez: There you go! And so, you know, I am disappointed that when we went to city council president Mary Sheffield's office and asked her, what do you think about this finding that Detroiters say that local officials don't care about what they want? She did not respond.

Jer: Isn't that kind of indicative of the problem, though?

Sarah Alvarez: I think it was a real chance to tell Detroiters, No, officials do care. And by the way, we have heard this from many, elected officials, and I do think it's true that many elected officials actually do care, but that message needs to get to Detroiters.

Jer: Yeah. And I think also sometimes people get a little, politically worried about what, whatever answer I say, is it gonna be right? So I'm just not gonna say anything at all.

Sarah Alvarez: Right. But, yeah, so we were just talking about in national elections, people saying that they're gonna go turn out and vote. And we do see that people are turning out and voting. In local elections, it's dismal. The turnout is very poor. And actually, local officials have a lot more power over the things that Detroiters say they care most about. And so those really are the elections that they should be turning out at in bigger numbers.

Jer: I mean, this is something we talk about on Daily Detroit all the time. Whether it's the city of Detroit or wherever you're listening to this, your local day to day life is going to be impacted a lot more by the people in your community, whether it's state, county, city.

I do worry about this kind of national, almost king watching or queen watching of the presidency. And our system of government, at least, is how I was taught it, is supposed to work from the ground up, not the top down. And yet so much of our coverage, and that's driven in part by audience (demand) is from the top down.

Sarah Alvarez: Right! And actually, we even saw this in the survey results. So we asked people to tell us what were their two big, two most important things to them that they wanted city officials to work on? And we also asked them, what are the two most important things that you want, federal officials to work on?

There was tremendous agreement in terms of the local issues, which we can go into, and there was not much agreement in the federal issues. So the top federal thing was prices and inflation.

But only 16% of our sample mentioned that at all. Detroiters are very united on what they want to see change in the city, but they are local issues that they care about more than federal issues.

Jer: Well, let's unpack some of that, because I think people want to know. And honestly, selfishly, I'd like to know.

Sarah Alvarez: So the way that we asked this question was a – It was open ended, so we didn't give people a list of things that they had to check off or, pick two of five, you could say whatever you wanted. And then the researchers took all of those responses and put them into different categories.

So far and away, 37% of our sample agreed that crime, safety, violence, that's their number one concern in the city of Detroit.

Followed by blight and vacancy, and then affordable housing and other housing related issues.

So safety and housing, these bread and butter things, make a lot of sense to me. And we see this in our surveys, too. Housing is always a number one concern.

Jer: Interesting. Are there any other kind of highlight issues, kind of like, sitting below that, or are those really the big three?

Sarah Alvarez: I mean, the big three are affordable housing and housing issues. Blight and vacancy, those both got more than 15%. Crime, safety, violence. That was like, far and away the leader.

Street repair was next but it didn't get over 15%. And then things (where) I was actually really surprised. Litter, which, my God, litter, trash, illegal dumping that was actually did get more than 10% – more than education.

Jer: I mean, when I walked the dog, that's something I run into. We were four blocks away. Somebody had just dropped on an empty lot a bunch of boards with nails up across the sidewalk.

Sarah Alvarez: Yeah, that's terrible.

Jer: And it's the bread and butter of what we need to be attacking in the city.

Sarah Alvarez: And again, this makes sense when you see that Detroiters care so much about their neighborhoods and that they are really invested in their neighborhoods. Of course, they're also going to be very invested in how those look and the cleanliness of them and whether or not there's vacancy.

There is a very harmful narrative that Detroiters don't care about the city and that all of these things are just kind of inevitable. blight is inevitable.

And what this survey is telling us and what, of course, our lived experience is, is that, no, people (do) care deeply and want to do something about it, and they are encountering barriers to doing things about it.

Jer: Well, and often time in practice, and this is just my reporting experience, not all the times, but often time you've got some sort of a larger, company, or, you know, not great contractor, maybe from the suburbs. That's just like, oh, hey, I don't want to pay dumping fees. Let me just drop this on a lot somewhere.

I remember when I lived near Midtown, I constantly dealt with these issues. There was this one lot every other week. It was over and over again. (The city) eventually got them because it was the same person.

Sarah Alvarez: Yeah! And I do think that the city has made blight and illegal dumping more of a priority recently. And that that, let's see how they do, because like we said, that is a real priority for Detroiters.

Jer: I want to talk a little bit about the Latino community, which I don't think it's enough shine. You know, there's a long time that – that was actually the community that drove – was the only growing demographic in the city for a while. And there's been so much investment in the city by the community. What, are some of the insights you were able to garner from that?

Sarah Alvarez: Well, I think that the picture is not quite as rosy there. First of all, to your point about population, we did not do this in this study, but we have seen that, (it) is a very dynamic community. So more Latin folks are actually leaving the city now and moving downriver.

Jer: I've seen that and covered that as well. Even, anecdotally talking to, one of the people from La Jalisciense, who is opening up a spot in Taylor, or other places opening up in Lincoln Park and places like that. There's a big shift happening there, for sure.

Sarah Alvarez: Totally. So the population is shifting. But for Latin-a folks who live here, unfortunately, when we asked people, are they likely to vote? When people said, I'm not likely to vote, I'm definitely not voting, or I'm not likely to vote. Most of those people are from the Latino community, and they — This part of the study has not come out yet. But, what we already know is that it's because they feel disconnected from the process and they are very dissatisfied with both candidates.

Candidate dissatisfaction is incredibly high across the sample.

We're interested in asking questions that will help us understand Detroit in the long term, not just for this election cycle. But we did want to take the opportunity to ask how people feel about these two candidates. And the answer is, not great. especially Donald Trump.

So 58% of the people that we talked to had a, quote, "very unfavorable view" of Trump. And 16% had a "very unfavorable view" of Biden. but still, that's pretty. That's not great.

Jer: And candidates matter. I think a lot of people are frustrated, not just with the national situation. But sometimes locally, where it's like, in my district – no shade against who my district council person is – but there was nobody who ran against them. I don't get a choice to vote (on).

Sarah Alvarez: Right! And again, that is kind of echoed in Detroiters lack of participation in local elections. They are not very competitive elections.

Maybe Detroiters don't really feel like there's a lot on the line there when they're not competitive contests. I am really curious to learn more about, why people are disengaged from local elections.

I am very happy that Detroiters are not disengaged from national elections, and I'm really happy that they're not disengaged, most importantly, from their communities.

But the local voting, issue is definitely, I think, one (area) of concern because that's how we hold our elected officials accountable.

Jer: Well, Outlier does some of the most on the ground reporting of anyone I know. And so what are some of the things that you're seeing out there in this reporting that give you a sense as Sarah, as opposed to just, the report itself?

Sarah Alvarez: Outlier Media works to fill information gaps, accountability gaps, and connection gaps, in that order. And I'm really happy to see that Detroiters are fairly connected to each other. We didn't do this survey before the pandemic, but I bet if we did it before the pandemic, it would have been even stronger.

I think our social fabric has frayed a bit since the pandemic, and people do feel less connected to each other since the pandemic, but I am glad that it's still fairly healthy. That's something that I take a lot of comfort in.

But I also see that the fact that people are so able to say, "these are persistent problems that I'm still very concerned about" means that we are not seeing enough movement on those issues. Right?

Blight and vacancy has been an issue here for so long and is still Detroiters number two issue, crime and safety. And not just crime. People feeling safe is different from being worried about crime, right? That can be lots of things. That could be stray dogs, that can be knowing who your neighbors are, feeling like you can trust them, feeling like your kids are safe at school. Those things are still of such concern for people.

And if we can't address those things, we're not going to have a city where people do say, yes, I want to stay here.

Jer: There has been some movement in some data points around crime and safety. But there is something to that feeling that, you can't build anything else unless people feel safe. If they're like, hey, you know what? My generator isn't going to get stolen. Or you name it.

It's that pride where if enough stuff gets taken, you (ask), then why should I keep doing this? And I've seen that in my neighborhood, and I've been on the edge of feeling some of that stuff sometimes where I'm like, oh, wow, okay, that lawnmower's gone.

And then you gotta fight through that. But I think it's also part of what drives some people, frankly, to hit the suburbs.

Sarah Alvarez: I think so. (But this) is separate from this, but we're also doing a big project right now on the affordability of Detroit or the lack of affordability in Detroit. And to be honest, I think that it's also costs that really drive people to the suburbs because there's a reputation.

I think people who don't live here believe that Detroit is a really cheap place to live. People who do live here know that there's a lot of taxes that we pay, whether it be auto insurance, whether it be DTE bills, whether it be actual city taxes. It's expensive to live here. and so I think that that's another thing that drives people away.

And if people are willing to deal with the cost, if they can live in a community that they simply could not replicate somewhere else. But again, those feelings of, that concern about safety phrase that. And then maybe it's not as worth it to live here and to bear that extra cost.

Jer: Well, and one thing I have noticed, too, and this is anecdotal, but there are a number of people, I feel like, that have moved into the city that come from another area where there's just higher income or there's more assets.

And I feel like there's almost an arbitrage where there's just a complete (imbalance) with how much money someone has. They sell a place in another city that they sell it for a million dollars or a million two. For like a two bedroom or something. Right. An apartment. They come to Detroit.

Sarah Alvarez: Well, it's cheap for them.

Jer: It's cheap for them to spend $600,000 on a house in a really nice neighborhood. But for the people who live here - with the limited housing supply that we have, because we do have a limited supply of livable housing, it drives that pricing up when you have people who just have so much more resources or they're working in another market. And I also see that regionally as well, when it comes to just how much money we make versus say, okay, you have a job with an employer that's out west and you make out west money, but you live here.

Sarah Alvarez: Yeah.

Affordable housing was Detroiter's third concern. and again, we have seen that since I started Outlier in 2016. Housing then was the number one issue because we, this was, again, this was an amazing study.

I'm so happy that we were able to do it. But every year we do what we call an information needs study, and we use, our text message system to ask Detroiters a bunch of different questions, basically about what they don't have now that they need and what their concerns are, for the next couple of months. And so since I started Outlier, the highest concerns have always been housing, utilities, and transportation.

Jer: Let's take a step back really quick and talk about that text message (service) in case people don't know. I realize that I know what you're talking about, but I'm like, you know what? Listeners should know about this.

Sarah Alvarez: Yeah, I'm very excited. We are actually rebuilding our text message system to make it much better.

But we run, it's called Text Outlier. and it is a way that Detroiters can reach us at any time and get automated information on some of the things that they need answers to most often.

And then it's also a way to connect directly to a reporter.

You always have the opportunity to say, follow up with me, and a reporter will get back to you within 48 hours and answer your question, deal with your issue, give you advice for how to address a certain issue. So all people need to do is text the word Detroit to the number 67485, and they'll be connected directly to us.

Jer: So before we go, what is a takeaway or two? Want to make sure that people at home know about the survey and kind of what's next.

Sarah Alvarez: My takeaways are, that Detroiters care deeply about the city and that our civic health is better than we get credit for.

The other takeaway, I would say, is that there's a big disconnect between the power that we know we have as detroiters on a national picture, and the power that people feel like they have on a local level. Detroiters seem to have disconnected from their power at a local government level in a way that I really want to know more about. And so I hope that we will be able to learn more about that.

Jer: Yeah, I hope so, too. And you know what? If you've got feedback, of course, text them. but also dailydetroit at gmail dot com. I want to hear from you if you're feeling disconnected. You know, we have a lot of interesting conversations here, and I know our people are very, like, they're very close to the wheel for everything.

But if you're out (saying), ah, it doesn't matter, or you feel like, I think we both want to hear about this stuff because I think it's important.

Sarah Alvarez: Yeah. And I'm at Sarah, and that's Sarah at outliermedia dot org. and people can feel free to get in touch with me, too.

Jer: Yeah. And make sure to, like, sign up and read all the things from Outlier. I know I do. I really appreciate all the work that you do. And thank you for stopping by daily to chat.

Sarah Alvarez: Yeah, thank you! My pleasure.

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