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Detroit accuses census officials of undercounting its residents

City officials say the Census Bureau has stymied efforts to challenge its findings.

DETROIT (CN) — The city of Detroit filed suit against the federal government Tuesday morning, claiming the 2020 census failed to count over 20,000 of its citizens, most of them Black and Hispanic, and that the U.S. Census Bureau refused to fix the error. 

According to the city's complaint signed by attorney David Fink of the Detroit firm Fink Bressack, the Census Bureau admitted to systemically undercounting Black and Hispanic populations in the 2020 census, then released a revised estimate last year of Detroit’s population that reduced the city’s estimated population by over 7,000. 

“Any objective observer of Detroit knows… Detroit’s population increased from April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021,” Fink wrote in the complaint, which names the Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Commerce, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Census Director Robert Santos as defendants.

The federal lawsuit cites postal records, a rising number of accounts with the city’s water and sewerage department and electricity provider, homeownership statistics from the Detroit Land Bank Authority and a collection of new multi-family housing projects to back up that contention. 

“The Census Bureau used a formula to estimate Detroit’s population that showed the city losing more than 7,000 residents from just one year prior,” Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan said in a press release. “Any formula claiming the city is still losing population defies facts and common sense, given the thousands of newly constructed and renovated housing units in the city, as well as increases in residential utility connections. Activity like this does not happen when more people are leaving the city than moving in.” 

On top of that 7,000-resident drop between 2020 and 2021, the original 2020 census data suggested a drop of over 31,000 residents between 2019 and 2021. City leaders began sounding alarm bells late in 2021 when researchers hired by the city released a report finding that more than 8% of occupied homes in Detroit were undercounted. 

When Duggan started the process of challenging the Census Bureau’s findings, according to the lawsuit, the agency refused to provide the data the estimate was based on, grinding the challenge to a halt. It instead suspended its Population Estimates Challenge Program, promising to bring it back in 2023. 

“Absent judicial intervention, Detroit is without recourse to correct this racially biased 2021 population undercount because the Commerce Department and the Census Bureau refuse to abide by their own promulgated rule,” the complaint states.

Detroit is the largest city challenging the 2020 census, which was riddled with legal and logistical issues resulting in part from the Covid-19 pandemic and then-President Donald Trump’s efforts to shut down the census early. Other challengers include Erie, Pennsylvania, and three small cities in Georgia. 

Detroit’s population, estimated in the 2020 census at 639,111, is approximately 77% Black and about 14% white, making it the nation’s largest majority-Black city. 

The city has disputed the decennial count before. A challenge to the 1990 census by then-Mayor Coleman Young resulted in an adjustment. 

The Census Bureau declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon.

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