Tens of thousands of Detroiters live in homes that are becoming increasingly unsafe due to neglected home repair. (BridgeDetroit photo by Valaurian Waller)

A key tool in helping Detroiters pay for critical home repairs has been sidelined for months by COVID-19.

Delays in the City of Detroit’s 0% Interest Home Loan Program is just one example of how the pandemic has exacerbated efforts to repair tens of thousands of homes that are unsafe and unhealthy, according to more than a dozen housing advocates who deal with the issue. 

Other factors include rising repair costs — leaking roofs, broken furnaces and faulty wiring are among the top needs — and the high number of people laid off during the pandemic, advocates said. 

 “I’m very concerned about people who are confined to homes right now that are very unhealthy,” said Lisa Johanon, executive director of Central Detroit Christian Community Development.  She mentioned Detroiters’ high rate of asthma — deaths from the chronic condition are two times higher in the city compared to the rest of Michigan. Asthma can be triggered by airborne allergens in homes such as dust mites, mold spores, pet dander or particles of cockroaches. There’s also exposure to lead in old paint and pipes, which is particularly dangerous for children. 

 “I’m still in shock how many people live with no hot water or heat. That’s harrowing to me,” Johanon said. 

COVID delays 

The 0% interest program offers 10-year loans of up to $25,000 for home repairs for Detroit residents. Since April 2015, more than 1,000 homeowners have been preapproved for the loan, and over 550 projects have been completed, according to City officials.

But since November, the lenders underwriting the program haven’t reviewed any new applications from homeowners, City officials said. Underwriters are expected to start reviewing applications this month. It’s unclear how many applications have been delayed, but various nonprofits that help residents with the loan say there’s a backlog of at least several hundred households. It was the second pause in applications; another occurred earlier last year but ended in September. 

Even before the pandemic, the number of Detroit homes that need major repairs had reached critical levels citywide. Besides the health risks, the dwellings undermine the rebounding housing market in many neighborhoods because distressed housing lowers the overall value of residential property.

Long waiting lists

A recent University of Michigan study tried for the first time to estimate how many Detroit homes need urgent repairs. It estimated 24,000 homes need major fixes. That adds up to about 5% of the city’s housing stock. Housing advocates contend the real number is far higher.  

As repairs pile up, fewer residents have the means to fix the problems. Many lower-income Detroiters can’t get loans from private financial institutions, and there are insufficient funds from grants and other programs.

The U-M study found that while 24,000 residences needed major repairs, only 2,934 homes were able to gain access to funds, such as grants and loans, in 2018.  

There are long waiting lists for various programs aimed at home repair, housing advocates contend. The nonprofit U-Snap-Bac has been offering home repair programs for 13 years, said Linda Smith, the organization’s executive director. In 2019, more than 500 people applied for the nonprofit’s $7,500 grant for home repairs. It was able to help 40 homeowners. The funding comes from a regional federal bank.

Never enough funding to fix everything 

When residents get funding for home fixes, it’s never enough to deal with the host of problems. 

“The vast majority of these homes have not been taken care of for decades,” said Tim Bishop, director of the home repair services at the United Housing Community Coalition. Through a program called Make It Home, the nonprofit has helped 360 Detroit households get repairs since 2019.  The repair part of the Make It Home program offers up to $10,000 through grants and interest-free loans.

“The most immediate need is often the roof,” Bishop said. “When we get into a house, we find issues with the boiler or furnace, windows, mold; it is never just one” problem, he said. Bishop said he could think of only one out of the 360 homes that had all its repairs fixed. 

The pandemic has meant skyrocketing costs for home repair, said Gwen Gell, home repair coordinator at UCHC. “The sheer costs of materials are way up,” she said. Labor costs have also jumped significantly, Gell and other housing advocates said. 

Before the pandemic, the least expensive roof repair was around $6,000, Bishop said. “Now, the least expensive is in the high eights,” he said, referring to $8,000. Often, a roof repair can cost around $17,000.

Louis Aguilar is BridgeDetroit’s senior reporter. He covered business and development for the Detroit News, and is a former reporter for the Washington Post.

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