This story was originally published by BridgeDetroit, a nonprofit news site that reports on America’s largest majority Black city. Sign up for their newsletter here.

Trash strewn grass and parking lots, overgrown sidewalks, and messy interiors are mainstays at Detroit’s dollar stores. Consistently out of compliance with city blight requirements, dollar stores in Detroit from two of the nation’s largest chains are making a mess of residents’ limited access to groceries. 

Dollar Tree, which owns Family Dollar, has earned more than 2,400 blight tickets since 2020 and racked up more than $740,000 in unpaid fines, according to a BridgeDetroit analysis. 

The city’s efforts to force clean-ups and fine collections culminated last week in a settlement with Dollar Tree to address blight violations at 47 stores operated by the company in the city. Per the agreement, Dollar Tree must pay $150,000 – approximately one-fifth of its unpaid fines – to get a blight clearance for its properties and, going forward, must follow a more routine maintenance schedule.

But for some City Council members, the agreement isn’t enough, and even the city’s administration acknowledges the settlement doesn’t cover the full scope of violations and delinquent fines for Dollar Tree. Meanwhile, Detroiters have fewer options for grocery shopping: There are more dollar stores than grocers in the city which faces a 65 percent food insecurity rate, and some dollar stores operate literally where groceries once stood. 

City Council member Angela Whitfield-Calloway told BridgeDetroit she will be pursuing legislation to halt the opening of new dollar stores. 

“I am going to support a temporary moratorium on the building of new dollar stores until we can get a handle on all the ones that are here in the city,” Whitfield-Calloway said. “They’re everywhere. Every other business is a Dollar Tree.” 

According to online company data there are approximately 80 belonging to Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, and Dollar General, in addition to numerous independently owned stores.

The blight is more than just unsightly – it’s part of a dollar store effect demonstrated nationally. Across America there are more than 35,000 Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and Family Dollar stores, more than Starbucks and McDonalds combined. The stores provide some basic necessities at lower prices and are considered helpful to the majority of people living nearby, according to new research. But the stores also contribute to blight and crime, and worsen food access by undercutting grocery stores that provide fresh, healthy food options. In Detroit, the trends ring true.  

“What we want is compliance,” said Conrad Mallett, chief corporation counsel for Detroit. 

“They (Family Dollar) understand absolutely what the expectation is, the reporting system is much more organized, and with these large landowners who do have some corporate or broader community responsibility, these global settlement agreements have been quite effective,” Mallett added.

Dollar Tree declined to comment on the specifics of the settlement.

“We know how much Detroit shoppers rely on our stores, and we’re committed to offering a clean, safe environment for our associates and customers – both inside and outside of our stores,” a Dollar Tree company spokesperson said by email. Dollar Tree disputes some of the unpaid inspection fees, fines, invoices, violations, and judgments, according to the agreement.

The company declined to say why the blight wasn’t addressed sooner and why the fines weren’t paid by the company, which reported gross profits of $4.37 billion in the first half of 2023. Dollar Tree also declined to say whether there are plans for future stores in Detroit or to add more fresh food options. 

Whitfield-Calloway said she wouldn’t have settled for $150,000. 

“I would not have settled because when you settle that means you’re giving them a way out,” she said. “That means you’re approving the behavior. You’re condoning it, and I don’t condone it at all.” 

The blight map provides a general scope of dollar store blight in Detroit. It is an imperfect look due to inconsistencies in the city of Detroit’s records. For example, a number of violations were issued to “Wyoming Dollar” instead of “Family Dollar,” which is located on Wyoming Street.

“A horrible sight”

Misha McGlown lives across the street from the Family Dollar at West Grand Boulevard and Linwood. The store has received 138 blight citations since 2020, the most for any dollar store in the city. 

The back of the store faces McGlown’s house, which is adjacent to the Irwin House Gallery, an art gallery she directs. From her properties, McGlown said she could often see illegal dumping, graffiti, messy sidewalks, and criminal activity. 

“That was a horrible sight,” said McGlown, who offered to put up a mural at the back of the store.

Misha McGlown got tired of looking at the blight at the Family Dollar across the street from her home and business so she put up a mural in July at no cost to Family Dollar, featuring people from the neighborhood. (BridgeDetroit photo by Quinn Banks)

After months of back and forth, McGlown said Dollar Tree agreed and Detroit artist Marlo Broughton began the mural in July. The near complete mural features children from the neighborhood, to help the community feel connected to the piece, McGlown said. 

She estimates the massive mural cost $10,000, which she raised from community partners including Lewis & Thompson, West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, and NW Goldberg Cares. Dollar Tree did not contribute anything. 

Since the mural went up, McGlown said she has noticed a reduction in blight and crime at the Family Dollar. 

“I would literally see people kick [sex workers] out of the car on a kind of regular basis. And now, in contrast, we see people getting out of their cars to take selfies in front of the mural,” McGlown said. “So it’s just completely changed the energy.” 

Whether the illegal activities were due to the state of the dollar store is difficult to say, but dollar stores and crime have been linked nationally. At the beginning of 2023, 20 Detroit dollar stores were robbed at gunpoint in a period of 22 days, according to a January update from Detroit Police Chief James White. 

The police department did not respond to a request for comment on crime at dollar stores. 

“Nothing else around”

The dollar stores are both a blessing and a headache for residents. 

Before it was a Family Dollar, 2322 West Grand Blvd. was an A & P, one of a chain of grocery stores that closed in 2015. The closest remaining grocery store is nearly a mile away. 

“Unfortunately, this is a bit of a food and convenience desert so we’re very fortunate I guess to have [Family Dollar],” McGlown said. “The store isn’t always well kept, but it is usually stocked with many of the essentials that people need,” said McGlown, adding that she goes to the store for last-minute business needs like bottled water, paper towel, and dish soap. 

“There’s nothing else around. So, in that case, it is kind of essential to this community,” she said. 

Before it was a Family Dollar, 2322 West Grand Blvd. was an A & P, one of a chain of grocery stores that closed in 2015. The closest remaining grocery store is nearly a mile away. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Quinn Banks)

Dollar Tree said they often repurpose vacant retail spaces into stores, keeping adjacent businesses open and providing retail and jobs in underserved communities. 

“Our stores also bring economic development to communities we enter, including helping to alleviate the effects of so-called “food deserts” by helping serve those who are otherwise limited in access to basic food items we provide,” the company’s statement read. 

But there isn’t much fresh food.

Research from the University of Toronto and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) found that the presence of dollar stores reduced how much low-income people spent on fresh produce, as much as 14% less with one dollar store in the area to as much as 30% less with three or more stores.

In McGlown’s neighborhood, 60% of people live below the poverty line with an average household income of $12,000. 

The UCLA study also found there was a significant decline in the amount of independent grocery stores within a two-mile radius of a dollar store, a trend Alex B. Hill, project director of the Detroit Food Map Initiative, has watched unfold in Detroit. 

Hill, who also works for the city’s Detroit At Work program, has been tracking dollar stores for more than a decade in an attempt to get a complete look at food access in Detroit.

In his initial surveying, dollar stores emerged as one of the top places where Detroiters accessed food. Since 2017, Detroit has had a net loss of 10 grocers that have been replaced by more than 20 new dollar stores

“In some ways they fill a gap, but in another sense they’re filling the gap wrong,” said Hill. 

Dollar stores provide access to some household necessities and food in places where grocery stores chose to leave, like Kroger, the number one grocer in the metro Detroit area, with zero stores in Detroit proper. Survey results released in October by the Center for Science in the Public Interest of people living near dollar stores found that 82% said dollar stores helped their community. 

“They’re very convenient and you can go there for anything,” said Shania Powell, a resident who lives next to a Family Dollar on Gratiot. Powell said she shops at dollar stores often for household supplies and snacks and feels they are much cheaper than grocery stores. Her only complaint is that the dollar stores are sometimes understocked. 

Almost as many people in the survey – or 81% – said the stores should stock healthier options. Just four of 20 Dollar Generals in Detroit offer fresh food, according to a company statement. Dollar Tree declined to say how many of its Detroit locations stock fresh produce. 

Comparison studies show prices tend to be more expensive at dollar stores than regular grocery stores, while the quality may be worse. Earlier this year, analysts at the Bank of America bought 33 similar items from Walmart, Target, Dollar General, and Family Dollar, finding that it was $13.64 more expensive at Dollar General and $16.17 more expensive at Family Dollar, compared to Walmart. 

Although few Dollar General locations in Detroit have fresh food, a Dollar General statement to BridgeDetroit noted that all 20 locations in Wayne County, including Detroit, offer “components of a healthier diet” like frozen and canned vegetables, proteins and canned fruits. 

“While Dollar General is not a grocer, we understand the affordable access our stores provide to customers, often in communities where other retailers cannot or will not serve,” the statement reads. “With approximately 75 percent of the U.S. population living within five miles of one of its general merchandise stores, millions of Americans rely on Dollar General to provide convenient, affordable access to the everyday products they need and want.” 

Nationally, Dollar General offers fresh produce at roughly 4,400 stores, but plans to increase to 10,000 within the next several years. Dollar Tree declined to comment on future plans to offer fresh food at its stores.

Tougher rules

The city’s agreement with Dollar Tree is effective through July 2027 and stipulates that Dollar Tree pay $36,437.50 for unpaid inspection fees, in addition to the $150,000 fine. 

“It’s a very small amount of money but nevertheless, again, the point is compliance,” said the city’s lawyer, Mallett, noting the department didn’t pursue every ticket. Dollar Tree, he said,  likely would have disputed them, delaying or preventing a compliance agreement. 

Dollar Tree also must meet with the city every 120 days to review the agreement and its compliance. New maintenance requirements include cutting grass once a month and maintaining less than five inches of grass height and daily property inspections to clean up trash and illegal dumping.

Agreements like this have been used in the last few years to get large landowners into an organized system that allows the city to monitor their behavior and blight, Mallett said. While the agreement was being negotiated the city was already stepping up efforts to address the blight. 

When BridgeDetroit visited the Family Dollar on Oct. 24, a third-party contractor for Dollar Tree was removing overgrown grass from the sidewalk. 

Lucas Gates, a crew lead for Ground Control Property Services, said he normally spends 30 minutes at the store mowing the grass, but this time he and fellow crew lead, Anthony Paulak, would spend hours doing additional work, like removing approximately a foot of grass covering the edge of the sidewalk. 

“Last year, they weren’t cracking down on them (dollar stores) like that, like how they are this year,” Gates said about the city. “This year they’re extra.” 

Lucas Gates (left) and Anthony Paulak, crew leads for Ground Control Property Services, clean up the sidewalk at the Family Dollar at 2322 W. Grand Blvd. (BridgeDetroit photo by Quinn Banks)

A healthy food strategy

Beyond food concerns, dollar stores have a reputation nationally as bad actors for other reasons.  

Dollar Tree/Family Dollar has been fined more than $143 million since 2000 for employment, environmental, consumer protection, and other violations, according to Good Jobs First violation tracker. Dollar General has been fined more than $81 million for similar violations. This October, Dollar General reached a $1 million settlement with the state of Ohio after it sued the company for charging more at the register than the listed shelf price. 

In response to a national proliferation, at least 54 cities have ordinances restricting dollar stores, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit advocacy group. Some ordinances restrict new dollar stores from opening within one to several miles of an existing store, put a temporary moratorium on new stores, or, in the case of Stonecrest, Georgia, ban new dollar stores altogether. 

Detroit has more dollar stores than many cities that have passed ordinances, including Birmingham, Ala., Fort Worth, Texas, New Orleans, La., and Oklahoma City, Okla. But it might soon get added to the list, if Whitfield-Calloway has her way. 

“Since they’re bad neighbors, they don’t really respect where they are, because they’re not keeping them clean, they’re filthy – I would not allow them to build anymore,” she said. 

“I don’t care if it’s Dollar King, Dollar Castle, Dollar Days…I don’t want any more dollar stores in the city until we can make sure all of the ones who are operating are legally operating and in compliance with our codes.” 

City Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero said she’s “disappointed” that the city settled for less than the fines assessed for Dollar Tree. 

“If a corporation can pay their fair share they should and we shouldn’t be cutting corners in cases like these,” she said, when it’s residents that have to deal with the blight at dollar stores. 

“That’s a loss for us,” she said. “Any institution, any properties that are contributing to blight should be held accountable.” 

But since dollar stores are seen as an avenue for produce and other foods, imposing restrictions are tricky. 

“It’s a little of two truths, we have dollar stores that may not be the best neighbors here, but they are also the ones that are providing groceries for a lot of residents,” she said, adding many of her Southwest Detroit constituents shop at dollar stores.  

Hill said the city needs a healthy retail food strategy to curb worsening food access, and support more grocery stores opening. 

In the last year, two new grocery stores opened in Detroit, and one is planned for next year. Two out of the three relied on crowdfunding to open, which Hill said is “notable.” A healthy retail food strategy would ideally support new grocery stores to open without having to crowdfund. 

Baltimore, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Denver, and other major cities have healthy retail food strategies which include components like support for people to open new grocery stores, healthy food and produce incentives, or  grocery store/neighbrohood food ambassadors. 

From 2017 to 2020 Hill worked at the Detroit Health Department where he said he attempted to create a healthy retail food strategy. “But there wasn’t a lot of appetite for additional work or expanding the mission beyond what our state mandates,” he said. 

“Detroit’s probably the most famous for being a food desert so it’s kind of wild,” Hill said of the city not having a healthy retail food strategy. 

The Detroit Health Department and Planning Department did not comment on a “healthy retail food strategy” but officials said hiring the city’s first urban agriculture director, Tepfirah Rushdan, would help address food insecurity. 

Antoine Bryant, director of the Planning and Development Department, said the city is focused on inclusive growth in Detroit. 

“One of the major initiatives that we are looking at is addressing food insecurity, including the provision of healthy produce to our residents,” he said in an email statement to BridgeDetroit. 

Rushdan said she will be exploring improving food access at dollar stores. 

“Food access is a serious issue in the city of Detroit,” she said by email, highlighting the efforts of the Detroit People’s Food Co-op and Neighborhood Grocery to provide more grocery outlets, and Eastern Market for providing free food boxes sourced from local farmers. 

“Meeting people where they are by creating access at dollar stores, convenience shops and gas stations has tremendous potential,” she said. 

Something that residents like McGlown, who lives across from the store with the most violations in the “food and convenience desert,” would like to see. 

“I’m not mad at the dollar store,” said McGlown, reiterating the benefits of having something there. “But again, no fresh food. That would be really nice, if it were an A & P. That would be kind of perfect for this community to have a grocery store there.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the gross profits for Dollar Tree for the first quarter of 2023.