Resident concerns over housing insecurity are driving City Council members to consider adjustments to Detroit’s plan for spending $426 million in federal pandemic relief, with one member suggesting up to $100 million should be redirected to affordable housing programs.
Council Member Latisha Johnson, who represents District 4 on Detroit’s east side, told BridgeDetroit she’s having conversations with colleagues about shifting more American Rescue Act dollars toward the city’s housing needs, which she said could be pulled from funds set aside for commercial demolitions and other sources.
At-Large Council Member Mary Waters and Council Member Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who represents District 6, said they believe there’s a majority on the council who would support reallocating federal dollars to address homelessness after hearing from evicted Detroiters who pleaded for help in recent council meetings.
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“My office is actually working on a resolution now that will be supported by a number of council members urging the mayor to make amendments to the ARPA spending,” Santiago-Romero told BridgeDetroit on Wednesday. “We cannot move the ARPA money around, but the administration can make amendments. My office is actually looking at all the (funding) buckets. The quicker we are able to show where the money is that can be reallocated and what things we can be doing, the sooner that we’re able to ask the administration to make those amendments.”
The city of Detroit was given $826.7 million in ARPA funds, the fifth-largest pot of federal cash sent to U.S. cities. Just under half of the money was used to offset budget shortfalls caused by pandemic cuts, while the remaining $426 million was designated for various community investments.
More than $85 million is going toward housing initiatives, according to a Wednesday statement from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer.
BridgeDetroit asked the mayor’s office whether the council can make adjustments to the ARPA spending plan. In response, the OCFO’s statement notes that state law requires any amendments to the ARPA funding categories, including any moving around of funds, must come from the administration as a request to the City Council.
Council President Pro Tem James Tate, who voted last year to approve the spending plan, said the council can’t snap its fingers and shift the funding.
“What we would have loved to happen – I’m sure it would have happened if City Council had the ability – we would have arbitrarily just moved dollars, but it doesn’t work like that based upon the (city) charter.”
Tate said he anticipated that revisiting the ARPA priorities would be a major part of this year’s business.
“I’m always one who likes to have the discussion first and then a resolution solidifies or codifies it,” Tate said Wednesday. “If the negotiations (with the administration) don’t go the way that many members of the community would like, and some members of council, then the next action would be a resolution that would indicate our desire for the administration to provide council with alternative funding sources and funding priorities for these ARPA dollars that focus more toward home repair and keeping folks in their homes.”
Johnson was quick to say that she believes reallocating $100 million is possible if the council can show there’s strong support from the community.
“The mayor can say whatever he wants to say, they can be reprogrammed,” Johnson said of the ARPA funding categories.
The new council took office in January with only three of the prior members, who voted on Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s ARPA spending plan last year, remaining. The largest pots of funding under Duggan’s plan include $250 million for city services and infrastructure; $105 million for employment and jobs programs; $95 million for blight remediation; and $50 million for public safety initiatives.
Duggan highlighted upcoming demolition projects during his 2022 State of the City address, focusing on efforts to tear down blighted homes and stagnant commercial properties. Fighting blight has been a major theme during his tenure. The mayor has pointed to progress in neighborhoods, where 23,000 vacant houses came down since 2014, and in removing eyesores like the Packard Plant and shuttered incinerator.
The administration in a Wednesday statement to BridgeDetroit also touted a “robust affordable housing strategy,” saying the city is on track to hit a goal of preserving 10,000 existing affordable housing units and developing 2,000 new units.
Santiago-Romero said she’d like to move funds from the demolition and public safety buckets to aid Detroiters facing eviction as well as those who have become homeless. She said she wants to build new affordable housing units based on median income in the city, and fund home repair grants.
“We have a lot of ARPA money, a lot of it, and I think we have a council that is looking at it very thoroughly,” Santiago-Romero said. “We’re not here to be a rubber stamp. We are here to serve people. We’ve heard people over and over again ask for funding for what they need directly and I think that we have a council that is willing to go bold.”
As of April 30, Detroit has spent $19 million in ARPA funding and encumbered another $85.7 million for vendor contracts that have yet to be approved by the City Council. A vast majority of the funding – $721 million – hasn’t been spent, according to a May report from the council’s Legislative Policy Division.
Johnson said she’s working to determine how much of the funds could be reallocated. She would like to find a way to speed the process of getting houses owned by the Land Bank Authority into the hands of Detroiters.
“I’m supportive (of reallocating funds) as long as we clearly identify the programming and how these dollars will be used,” she said. “When we leave it open-ended, we get what we get. So the question is: How much?
The conversation comes after dozens of Detroiters and housing activists called for more housing aid at back-to-back City Council meetings. Detroiters are worried about what will happen after the expiration of federal emergency rent aid being used to temporarily house evicted residents in hotels.
Tate, who represents District 1, said public comments about the issue have exposed flaws in the city’s safety net programs and demonstrated the need to do more.
“There is a major desire from members of the community to shift additional dollars towards home repairs and keeping folks in their homes,” Tate said. “That cannot be ignored or denied.”
A series of community meetings were held over two months in 2021 to gather feedback about how Detroiters wanted the ARPA money to be spent. The city reported 3,838 participants attended, representing 0.6% of the city’s population.
Rebuilding neighborhoods, fighting intergenerational poverty and improving public safety rose to the top of funding priorities desired by residents, according to survey results reported by the city. The survey gathered 739 responses. Residents said home repairs for seniors, low-income and disabled residents, plus grants to neighborhood groups and vacant property cleanouts were the top choices within the rebuilding neighborhoods category.
Waters said the spending plan approved last year doesn’t line up with how Detroiters want the one-time federal funds to be used.
“We’re too focused on demolition as opposed to rehabbing,” Waters said. “Oh my goodness, we have a demolition agenda that’s extremely long. What about some of those homes that can be saved? Why don’t we invest in that? Don’t ask me for ARPA dollars for commercial demolition in particular. The people that own these buildings need to pay up front to demolish their own buildings.”
Santiago-Romero said the meetings she attended last year didn’t provide enough room for residents to influence spending decisions.
“People were really upset with that process of giving feedback to the administration because it was just a presentation of how the money will be spent,” she said. “People over and over again said they want money for housing. They want money for infrastructure, they want money for climate protection. Yes, they want money for safety, but that means investing more in our police, the people that are going to be out on the streets, and less on technology that is incredibly expensive.”
Santiago-Romero has opposed the administration’s plan to spend $7 million in ARPA funds to expand the city’s use of the controversial gunshot detection software ShotSpotter. Council Member Angela Whitfield-Calloway said this week that she would rather direct those funds toward housing programs.
Santiago-Romero has argued that the Detroit Police Department has not proven its ability to reduce gun violence in the two precincts where ShotSpotter is operating. The contract was removed from the council’s Public Health and Safety Committee this week to give city officials more time to make their case to residents. Santiago-Romero, who chairs the committee, said the contract “doesn’t have the votes” needed to pass.
She said cities in Texas, New York, North Carolina, New Jersey and Massachusetts did not extend contracts with ShotSpotter “because, I believe, they see how expensive it is and and how very little results they’re getting.”
“I’m not that desperate to throw away money,” she said.
Council President Mary Sheffield voted against the ARPA spending resolution last year. In a statement at the time, Sheffield said “the overwhelming sentiment of Detroiters is to slow the process down” and “devise a plan that is more representative of the community’s priorities.”
Sheffield proposed changes to the mayor’s plan including adding $105 million for infill housing, $10 million to build affordable rental units and $50 million for home repair grants.
District 3 Council Member Scott Benson voted in support of Duggan’s spending proposal. Benson and Sheffield could not be reached Wednesday for comment.
Local governments have until the end of 2024 to allocate ARPA funds and the dollars must be spent by 2026. The funding can’t be used toward pension fund payments, old debt or past legal obligations, according to the city.